Karla Lester, M.D.: Called to Care for Children

karla lester called to care

“What I’m saying now—and I’m putting a stake in the ground—is Children’s is the leader in community child health.” – Karla Lester, M.D., Medical Director, Children’s Center for the Child & Community

Long before she joined the team at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, Karla Lester, M.D., was on her own mission to improve the life of every child.

“It’s just a calling for me,” she says.

A long-time pediatrician, social entrepreneur and staunch advocate for children, Dr. Lester has served as the medical director of Children’s Center for the Child & Community since its launch in March 2016.

“We’re working in several areas around early childhood systems and school health,” she says. “We’re working on developing a continuum of care for obesity. We’re launching advocacy efforts and working on our next child health implementation plan in the Omaha community.”

Community engagement, strategic planning and strategic partnerships are key pillars as the center works to advance its mission (to empower communities to value and support the health, safety, and wellbeing of every child) and achieve its vision (every child has the opportunity to reach their full potential).

“Vision is everything, and mission is everything,” Dr. Lester says.

In her experience, so is listening for one’s calling and then, once it declares itself, having the courage to act on it. Dr. Lester has been doing that her entire life, motivated to make an impact by her own upbringing.

The middle child, Dr. Lester says her hard-working, single mother instilled “amazing values” in her three daughters, was completely involved in their lives and “never let us quit anything.” Still, there were struggles: her mom battled severe depression after the divorce, and there were episodes of food insecurity and childhood hunger.

“My sisters and I know what that feels like,” Dr. Lester says. “When you talk about kids with ACEs (adverse childhood experiences), my score is actually pretty high.”

Instead of stifling her, those experiences planted a seed. When a friend encouraged her to go to medical school and focus on children, Dr. Lester listened. (It helped that the prospect of her initial plan—spending her life in a lab as a biochemical researcher—made her miserable.)

“I absolutely loved medical school. I thought of a few other fields, but it was always pediatrics. I love kids,” she says. “I was interested in the whole spectrum of pediatrics—from prenatal to young adulthood and working with the parents and the families.”

After graduating from University of Kansas School of Medicine in 1996, Dr. Lester completed her residency at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. (That’s where she met her husband, Lincoln pathologist Darek Lester, M.D., who also was a resident at the time.)

From her first job as a hospitalist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, Mo., Dr. Lester and her husband followed a call (and career opportunities) to Lincoln. She began her pediatric practice at Complete Children’s Health in 2001.

“I loved my colleagues and my practice,” she says. “I learned so much from the parents and the kids.”

By 2004, one of those takeaways was undeniable: an epidemic of childhood obesity was impacting her and her colleagues’ patients. (In Nebraska, one in three children is considered overweight or obese.) Considering it a call to action, Dr. Lester started the Healthy Living Clinic at Complete Children’s Health.

“We could get a handful of families there for 12 weeks in the evenings. I thought, ‘This is great,’ but yet, when they leave the clinic doors, all of the things that we’re counseling them on aren’t supported in the community. It’s really all about needing more of a public health solution and a community solution. I thought, ‘What’s going to be the next step? What am I going to do to address the problem?’”

In the fall of 2007, with an idea percolating, Dr. Lester attended a conference in Omaha that featured Bill Dietz, M.D., Ph.D., formerly with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and now at George Washington University. He told those in attendance that solving the childhood obesity epidemic will take a social revolution—each community creating its own solution. Once again, Dr. Lester listened.

“For me, it was a like a switch,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Creating community solutions for children’s health,’ and that became the vision of my non-profit.”

In 2008, Dr. Lester made the difficult decision to leave her pediatric practice— “and the patients that I love”— to launch Teach a Kid to Fish, a multi-partner outreach to combat childhood obesity. She was inspired by community-based organizations such as Activate Omaha Kids and CLOCC (Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children).

“Our success came from listening and the very intentional partnerships that we were able to build through trust and lots of work,” Dr. Lester says. “We really integrated in and were additive to the community, and we were able to demonstrate that we were moving the needle.”

To amplify its efforts against childhood obesity, Teach a Kid to Fish forged a partnership with Children’s, and in 2015, the two organizations worked together to open Children’s HEROES (Healthy Eating with Resources, Options and Everyday Strategies) pediatric weight management clinic in Lincoln.

At the same time, Dr. Lester was learning more about population health, and as she continued to listen, she heard a keynote from Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris of the Center for Youth Wellness, an expert in chronic toxic stress and ACEs in children.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is what my patients are experiencing. This is what I experienced as a child. So, we want to do more—we want to do more around policy; we want to do more around advocacy; we want to do more around early childhood efforts. We want to keep children safe; we want to keep them healthy, but we also want to address their mental-behavioral health. So, we need to do more than addressing childhood obesity treatment together.”

Again feeling called to do more, she bowed out of her executive director role with Teach a Kid to Fish and invested her time into a strategic partnership with Children’s, driving what would become Children’s Center for the Child & Community.

Dr. Lester says her work at Children’s is an “amazing opportunity to do something really big.” And therein lies the challenge: tackling big issues, including childhood obesity and early childhood health, can be overwhelming at times.

“There are walls you hit,” she says. “It’s challenging when you have big issues and you have to define what your outcomes and impact that are really feasible are going to be.”

The team is making bold progress. Three years in, the center’s expanding list of partnerships and achievements includes:

  • Implementing a five-year School Health & Wellness grant from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, in partnership with the Nebraska Department of Education, to improve student health and academic achievement through nutrition, physical activity and chronic condition management
  • Coordinating Children’s Project ECHO program, a statewide learning collaborative that links specialists with primary care providers through teleECHO™ clinics
  • Partnering with UNL Extension to support the Nebraska Double Up Food Bucks Program and address issues of healthy food access.
  • Coordinating the multi-partner Go NAP SACC (Nutrition and Physical Activity Self-Assessment for Child Care) initiative
  • Organizing the Nebraska Healthy Kids Summit
  • Leading the development of a group fitness class curriculum, ENERGY Fitness, with the YMCA of Lincoln
  • Partnering with the Nebraska Breastfeeding Coalition to strengthen community breastfeeding support networks
  • Focusing on clinic-to-community data collaborations with the UNMC College of Public Health
  • Developing an early childhood health plan in collaboration with Prosper Lincoln and launching the first Help Me Grow affiliate in Nebraska to create an early childhood systems approach
  • Creating Children’s “For Every Child” advocacy platform mobilizing Child Health Champions across the region

Rooted in collaboration, Dr. Lester encourages other child-focused community providers and agencies to pursue partnership opportunities with Children’s Center for the Child & Community, which is located at the Nebraska Innovation Campus in Lincoln.

“When you see alignment of vision for children, then you know we’re building a system,” she says.

A woman of strong faith and a mother herself, Dr. Lester says she is inspired to work hard and succeed, in part, for her and Darek’s three children: Katherine, 18, Audrey, 15, and Andrew, 12. “I want to make the community a great place for them and to be an inspiration for how you can speak up, follow your dreams and listen to your call when it declares itself and keeps coming up. It’s not easy—they know it’s not easy.”

Her hope for Children’s Center for the Child & Community is continued forward progress.

“What I’m saying now—and I’m putting a stake in the ground—is Children’s is the leader in community child health. And, I want our work to continue to rise to that declaration. The only way we can continue to do that is to expand our Child Health Champion Network, to really raise everyone to a level of being child health advocates and making it easy for them. I really want it to be fun—because it should be.”

If you feel called to join the Child Health Champion Network and learn how to be an effective advocate for children in our community, sign up at ChildrensOmaha.org/Advocacy.

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