Our History

Founder's Story

Les Ellis

When I was growing up, my family would have been labeled “the working poor.”  We lived in public housing in Richmond.  My father worked in an “ice house” making ice.  We had one used car that my father serviced and repaired himself.   My mother stretched my father’s small check as far as she could.  She made shirts for me and skirts and blouses for my sister.  We rarely ate out.

My father left school in the 6th grade because his father deserted him, his mother and his three sisters.  I never met my grandfather.  In spite of these difficult times, my father worked hard and continuously.  He also was committed to learning from everyone he met.  Due to his determination, he finished his work life as the highly respected Chief Stationary Engineer of Children’s Hospital of the East Bay.

Thanks to my parent’s values and support, I graduated from college.  Not long after that, I took the first step toward a career in insurance.  I have now successfully pursued this career for 47 years.  It has rewarded me far more than a “kid from the projects” could have dreamed.  Along the way, I have received encouragement and help from many people – family, friends, church members and teachers as I grew up, and mentors and colleagues later in life.  I strongly believe that each of us who has enjoyed success in life has had help along the way.

In 2004, I was struck by a cover story in “Business Week” dedicated to poverty in America, and specifically the plight of the working poor.  The article made the point that “one in four workers earns $18,800 a year or less, with few if any benefits.” Later that year, Congress once again, refused to take up the matter of increasing the Federal Minimum Wage that was $5.15 at the time and had been unchanged for 7 years.  At $5.15, a low-wage worker would make only $10,712 a year.

One of the most egregious things I learned about the story of poverty in America is the fact that children comprise more than one third of the impoverished.  Caught up in the conditions of their parent’s low income, the children and their parents have to live with crowded housing, no sick pay, no child care, poor diet, no job security, no medical or dental benefits, no retirement plan, no computer tools, and the list goes on. How could anyone have the time and energy to break the endless cycle?

The more I learned, the more I felt that I needed to do something to address these conditions.  I had been helped by so many in my life, it was time to give back to others who were working hard to improve their lives.  I began to formulate the idea of a group that would raise money and then find terrific local programs that would help the working poor develop the skills to move them up and out of poverty.  I took my ideas to the staff at the East Bay Community Foundation (a 75 year old funding institution of non-profit programs in the East Bay) and the 1200 Foundation, later to become Strive for Change Foundation was born.

I hope you will join me in this exciting and meaningful work.


Les Ellis