On November 2, the College of Health and Human Services will host the 2016 Community Heroes Awards to recognize the unsung heroes in our community whose actions, thoughts and words have had a transformative impact in our region. For the rest of the month, we will be highlighting our  nine honorees in our Community Heroes Series.


reyesemiliaName: Emilia Reyes

Occupation: Executive Director, First 5 Fresno County

Nominated by: Central California Children’s Institute and  Central Valley Health Policy Institute

Personal hero: “My son, Ray Franco, who inspires me and reminds me every day that even when the odds seem stacked against you, with determination, anything is possible.”

Emilia Reyes knows young children need to be surrounded by family, friends and a community that will do everything to give them the best start in life. As the executive director of First 5 Fresno County, Reyes has been working for years to create a Fresno County where all kids can have just that. Her commitment to the work all started very close to home – with her son, Ray Franco.

When he was just a baby, Reyes knew something about Ray seemed different. Something in her gut told Reyes that her sweet baby boy was not properly developing. So many people – doctors, family members, friends, coworkers – told her not to worry. “He’ll start looking you in the eye,” they’d tell her. “He’s a boy. Boys just develop more slowly,” they tried to assured her. Reyes was not satisfied.

As her boy grew older she continued to fight for answers. At the age of three, Reyes’ son was diagnosed with autism and her world changed in an instant.

From the moment of diagnosis, Reyes and her son rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Her son worked tirelessly with therapists and educators to keep up with his peers. Reyes worked tirelessly, too. She wouldn’t rest until she built a community around her son – a community of teachers, doctors, friends, family members, peers and therapists – that would support him to reach his full potential.

The hard work paid off. The system she established for her son was nothing short of astounding and the results were nothing short of a miracle. Now a thriving 15-year-old boy who is involved in sports, friends and all things teenager, Reyes can see the fruits of her labor. She knows how a strong support system can impact a life.

Today, Reyes is devoted to creating a system in Fresno County where all young children – typically developing or not – can have a strong start. She is applying what she learned as a young mom and making a difference in the lives of thousands of young children in Fresno County. Although many of the decisions she makes as an executive are systemic in nature, Reyes knows they ultimately impact individual children who so desperately need to grow up in a Fresno County where early childhood matters.

It’s her son’s success that keeps her going. It’s those individual children who keep her going. It’s babies, toddlers, preschoolers, kindergartners and parents who she wants to help start out life on the right foot.

Unfortunately too many babies in Fresno County don’t start out on the right foot. For one reason or another, these babies are born too early and with the odds stacked against them. A baby’s brain begins developing at eight-days old in utero and they need every day up to at least 38 weeks to properly develop before birth. In Fresno County, the number of babies born preterm is staggeringly high. It’s a number that Reyes is committed to working alongside community partners to change, including the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at Fresno State.

First 5 Fresno County is a part of a community initiative – the Fresno County Preterm Birth Collective Impact Initiative – working to find solutions to ensure Fresno County’s babies are born full term. The Central California Center for Health and Human Services at Fresno State currently serves as the backbone organization, helping to drive all major local efforts to the initiative.

“The high preterm birth rate in Fresno County is more than just an awful number. The rate represents children and families who will likely struggle for the rest of their lives because they didn’t fully develop before they were born,” Reyes said. “But the good news is that we can change the odds for our babies. We can work together as a community to create a system that supports mothers before they ever get pregnant. We have to. Babies are counting on us.”

For Reyes, the work is all interconnected. Babies who are born preterm will need serious support as they grow. They’ll need to be screened early and receive services early on in life. In fact, early intervention is critical to the success of all young children regardless of when they are born.

By making strategic investments and by forming strategic partnerships, First 5 Fresno County is committed to making sure young children receive the early intervention services they need. Whether they are born preterm or full term, whether they are well off or in need, whether they live in Kerman or Fresno or Orange Cove – First 5 Fresno County wants to help build a community where all young children receive the early intervention services they need and deserve. This work motivates Emilia every day.

“Knowing that First 5 Fresno County can work with the community to help make a difference in the lives of children is what keeps me going,” Reyes said. “I am blessed that life has brought me here. I get to work every day to make a difference in the life of a child. I’m not sure any job could be better than that.”


The 2016 Community Heroes Awards, which celebrates heroes from each of the seven departments, as well as centers and institutes within our college, will be held on November 2, 2016 at Fresno State. For more information on the event, contact Sandra Daily at 559.278.3603 or sandrada@csufresno.edu or click here.