On April 10, the College of Health and Human Services will host the 2015 Community Heroes Awards to recognize the unsung heroes in our community whose actions, thoughts and words have had a transformative power in our region. Our heroes, who represent each of the seven departments and four centers within our college, put others before themselves to genuinely make a difference for the residents of our region. All month long, we will be highlighting our 11 honorees in our Community Heroes Series.

BenCuellarName: Ben Cuellar

Occupation: Dean Emeritus of the College of Health and Human Services at Fresno State and Professor Emeritus of the Department of Social Work Education at Fresno State

Nominated by: The Central California Children’s Institute

Dr. Benjamin Cuellar grew up in the agricultural heartland of Visalia, California. Beyond the crops and industrialized labor that the small town is widely known for was a world of poverty, discrimination, institutional racism and poor schooling, as is the case with any town. The lifelong negative effects that accompany such disparities were all around him and Cuellar experienced this first-hand. He saw how the chances and opportunities of children and youth in that region rapidly declined without support or intervention.

As a result of this, Cuellar (a Fresno State Professor and Dean Emeritus), sought out to make change and has devoted his nearly 30-year career to the very subject. It is often said that a vision is simply passion put to work. The Central California Children’s Institute at Fresno State, established in 2001, is a perfect example of that. It was Cuellar’s passion that set the vision and implementation for the Children’s Institute.

“Central California is a region known nationally and internationally for its high rates of poverty, particularly among children and youth,” says Cuellar. Poverty, in particular, serves as a leading cause to other problems in an individual’s life, such as poor performance in school, juvenile delinquency, high dropout rates, gang activity and a life of crime.

Cuellar, along with colleagues, felt there was a need to have structure – a place at Fresno State where the needs and problems of children and youth could be looked at and addressed through research, program development, funding, and coordination by the appropriate colleges and schools within the University. This would lead to the core foundation of the Children’s Institute.

Cuellar’s advocacy for multi-college and multi-disciplinary collaboration on behalf of children spawned a new era for the Children’s Institute in 2008. In addition to the College of Health and Human Services, the College of Science and Mathematics, the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, and the Kremen School of Education and Human Development provided support of the Children’s Institute’s work.

“These structures provide the great majority of teachers and health and human service professionals in this region,” says Cuellar. “These graduates will make and have made many positive changes for vulnerable youth in the region and state and will continue to do so. It may be slow and never fast enough, but it will be consistent.”

Cuellar’s vision and leadership grew out of his knowledge of and love for the Central Valley. After receiving his Doctor of Social Work degree from Columbia University, he returned to the Valley in which he grew up. Cuellar joined the Fresno State community in 1981, where he worked as a professor in the Department of Social Work Education until 1988, and also served as department chair from 1985 to 1994. In 1995, he became dean of the College of Health and Human Services and held that position until his entrance into the Faculty Early Retirement Program in 2009. Cuellar was the first Chicano dean in the history of Fresno State.

During his time as a chair and dean for the college, he also helped establish the Central Valley Health Policy Institute and played an integral role in generating funding to support various institutes and programs, including the Social Work Education and Research Training Academy (SWERT), which has trained thousands of Valley social workers since its inception.

Cuellar has received numerous awards and fellowships while at Fresno State, including the CSU Faculty Meritorious Performance Award, the Kellogg Fellowship from the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities and the Outstanding Leadership Award in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. Prior to Fresno State, Cuellar held fellowships with the Carnegie Foundation, the National Institute of Mental Health and the Ford Foundation.

It is without a doubt that Cuellar’s long-standing and admirable career advocating for children has left an indelible print on the hearts and hands of the many individuals working on behalf of both vulnerable children and communities in the Central Valley.

The 2015 Community Heroes Awards will be held on April 10, 2015 at Fresno State. For more information on the event, contact Beth Wilkinson at 559.278.3603 or bwilkinson@csufresno.edu or click here.