Zelna Joseph has a long history of being a voice for the underserved in Colorado Springs.
Joseph, chief executive officer for SET Family Medical, has used that voice to help the city’s poor, minorities, battered women, troubled teens and now the medically malnourished.
“If I’m able, I’ll always be a voice for the people who don’t have a voice,” she said.
Joseph is a single mother of two sons and an ordained minister who in the mid-80s formed United We Stand Ministries, driven by a spiritual force.
Her sons became involved in the city’s burgeoning gang problem. One of them was shot standing in line at a local nightclub.
“At the time, Colorado Springs didn’t want to acknowledge gangs were coming into the community,” Joseph said. “But people’s children were actually getting killed.”
In an attempt to diversify the City Council — get them to acknowledge the poor and minorities of the community — Joseph unsuccessfully ran for a seat. But her efforts didn’t go unnoticed — she was later appointed to the council in 1996.
The role of community leader grew on Joseph and she’s developed her advocacy persona ever since.
In 2005, Joseph began her tenure at SET, a nonprofit that provides basic medical care and wellness services to low-income children, families and seniors. The organization was 15 years old by then, but needed a strong leader with vision.
“I developed a 5-year strategic plan and just implemented it,” she said. “We’ve grown by leaps and bounds.”
The clinic, 825 E. Pikes Peak Ave., used to be open only three evenings a week. Now it’s open five days a week, eight hours a day, in addition to the three evening clinics. It has served some 9,000 people.
In addition, the clinic launched the Comprehensive Healthcare Re-entry Program, which helps those being released from incarceration get health care. More than 1,100 people enrolled in that program after two years and only 7 percent of those former inmates ended up back in prison, she said.
“We have a great story to tell the state of Colorado about the success of this program and how it works,” she said.
Sure Joseph gets paid for her work at SET. But the real reward, she said, comes from helping people.
“This is just what I’m called to do,” she said. “I’ve been leading nonprofit organizations that help women, families and children for almost 20 years. … It’s a good feeling to go home at the end of every day knowing you have helped people.”
As far as future advocacy, Joseph said she never rules out the possibility of a second political career. She sees problems cropping up in the city again she might be able to help with.
The possible call-to-action came with Joseph’s home was recently burglarized. Police took more than four hours to get there and when they did, officers handed her a pamphlet explaining the budget problems affecting service times and investigation priorities.
“I thought ‘What is going on with this city?’” she said. “There’s clearly a disconnect between the leadership and the citizens of Colorado Springs. … I’m passionate about this city’s future, and so if there’s something I can contribute or bring a vision in some form or another, it’s not improbable I might jump back into public service.”
By Dennis Huspeni