Fall 2011 Issue | By Andrew Taylor
Jessica Sotelo, Truman Scholar
In 1996, when she started at Idaho State University as a single mother, Jessica Sotelo guaranteed her son, Ed, three things.
"My son was 6 years old at the time, and I worked throughout college, some years full time. It was a big sacrifice, so I promised him some day 'I will buy you a horse, take you to Disneyland and buy you a house.'
"I'm glad to report," continued Sotelo, "that I did all three."
Sotelo didn't start college until she was 36 years old, and had never been to college before. Today she is a past Truman scholar and current director of Partners for Prosperity, an entity devoted to reducing poverty in East Idaho.
A native and current resident of Blackfoot, Sotelo spent about 15 years living in Connecticut working in the travel industry "before the Internet exploded, back in the day when people used to use travel agents." She returned to Idaho to get an education.
Sotelo's determination shows through in her academic and professional life. She earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in American studies from Idaho State University in 2000. Due to her commitment to public service and academic accomplishments, she was awarded a $30,000 Harry S. Truman Scholarship. She used the Truman Scholarship to attend Syracuse University where she earned a master's degree in public administration and a Certificate of Advanced Studies in health services management and policy in 2002.
"I have always said my education at ISU prepared me well for both my graduate education and my career, including the volunteer work I do now for the Truman Scholars Association " Sotelo said. "I feel like Idaho State University offers a quality education, and, if students are willing to make it their own and go the extra mile, they have many opportunities not just locally, but nationally and internationally."
After earning her master's degree, she returned to Pocatello. As an employee of the ISU Center for New Directions, she wrote the competitive Partners for Prosperity grant proposal to the Northwest Area Foundation, a private, non-profit foundation dedicated to poverty reduction in an eight-state region. The proposal she authored landed the $11 million, 10-year grant that launched Partners for Prosperity. In 2004 she was hired as that entity's first executive director, and has been at its helm since. She was charged with working with regional communities and groups to create a plan for poverty reduction and then to implement the plan.
"I was the first person they hired and we hit the ground running," she said. "We had to create the necessary organizational structure and begin implementation without any lag time between receiving the grant and implementing it. It was a challenge."
Partners for Prosperity has focused on asset building for low-income people, workforce development, financial literacy, continuing education, programs in minority small business development, entrepreneurship and an earned income tax credit campaign. Partners for Prosperity covers the 16-county eastern Idaho region, including the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. It has a staff of 10 people working out of three offices and has gone on to leverage more than $20 million dollars to implement programs.
"As an organization, we've had our ups and downs, learned some lessons and made some corrections," Sotelo said. "Overall, we've been very successful, and all the programs we have now are very successful. We have a top-notch board that believes in innovative and effective governance practices, and we really try to stay on the forefront of non-profit management."
Sotelo credits the success of Partners for Prosperity to its collaboration with a wide assortment of nonprofit groups and government agencies, and understanding legal and fiscal responsibilities, remaining compliant to outside entities such as state and local government agencies and the federal Internal Revenue Service.
"The world of nonprofits is changing, there is an increasing accountability," Sotelo said. "You have to stay on top of the changes and remain involved in those areas to be successful."
The Partners for Prosperity grant ends in October 2013, and Sotelo said she is not sure of its future after that time. It could receive partial or total funding from the Northwest Area Foundation, and many of its programs could continue either under the umbrella of Partners for Prosperity or as independent entities.
She is not sure what the future holds, but there are several directions she can go, including continuing to work for nonprofits, or returning to school to earn a doctorate so she could teach about managing nonprofits and grant writing.
"The future is wide open," Sotelo said. "I love this area and have roots here, but I'm open to opportunities."