Pacific helped third-gen Pacifican’s rise in 30-year health care career
Kristen Spracher-Birtwhistle ’81, ’87 says playing on the Pacific tennis team helped her hone tennis skills, but also taught her valuable life lessons she has used throughout her career.Pacific helped third-gen Pacifican’s rise in 30-year health care career
Kristen Spracher-Birtwhistle '81, '87 insists she was just in the right place at the right time when it came to setting down her path to a successful 30-year career in health care.
But it's much more than mere happenstance for the fourth-generation Stocktonian, third-generation Pacifican and new president and CEO of the United Way of San Joaquin County. It's about having a trailblazing spirit nurtured by her Pacific experience.
"You got exposed to a lot of circles of people that impacted you different ways," Spracher-Birtwhistle said of her time at Pacific. "Of course, the class sizes were an advantage to getting personal attention from the professors who were all unparalleled on some level and would be available to you. I don't think much has changed at the university. People still regale the university for its one-on-one support to students."
Pacific's close-knit community attracted Spracher-Birtwhistle to the university along with a three-year scholarship to play tennis.
"On so many levels it was a glorious time," she said. "During that period, I had two fantastic coaches (Richard Andrews and Gordon Graham) who allowed us to excel athletically, but there were a lot of life lessons learned through athletics. ... I owe a lot of how I do work now through being part of a greater team. It was a period of growth for me, personally and professionally."
Her father, Dr. Jospeh Spracher '61, was team doctor for Pacific Tigers in the 1970s and developed groundbreaking sports medicine techniques and methods in the care, treatment and prevention of injuries, including pre-season conditioning. Pacific's athletic training facility is named for Spracher. It's no wonder her father's career and involvement with Pacific influenced Spracher-Birtwhistle.
"When I went down the path to sports medicine, my dream at that time was to become an athletic trainer and work for the National Football League," Spracher-Birtwhistle said. "Women, obviously, weren't allowed to work in that field at the time. It was years later that the NFL hired (its) first woman athletic trainer."
Along the way, she had a glimpse at a different career path.
"At Pacific, quite by chance, I had the opportunity to do an internship at St. Joseph's Medical Center as part of my master's thesis and was exposed to the field of health and wellness and health promotion from the vantage point of a hospital setting," she said. "If not for that internship, I probably never would have gone on the path to working in health care for 30 years."
From St. Joseph's, Spracher-Birtwhistle worked for two years at Dameron Hospital in Stockton before joining Kaiser Permanente as a health educator. While at Kaiser, she rose through the ranks to be an assistant administrator managing large-scale departments and was involved in the capital expansions of several Kaiser Permanente medical centers, including facilities in Tracy, Manteca and Modesto. Later, she was a medical group administrator in Santa Rosa and finished her Kaiser Permanente career at its regional office in Oakland.
"I think I was in the right place at the right time, and I was an effective administrator," she said. "... I was able to do a range of things, from capital expansion to community integration and community wellness. ... I was a jack of all trades."
She has used her success to help promote women's issues as a co-founder of the Advancing Women's Leadership conferences, which brings world-class speakers to Pacific's A.G. Spanos Center, and The Eleanor Project, which promotes women's causes and celebrates their accomplishments.
"It was a need to be fulfilled, and the perfect location was University of the Pacific," Spracher-Birtwhistle said of Advancing Women's Leadership, which in the past has drawn such speakers as Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state of the United States, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Facebook's chief operating officer and best-selling author Sheryl Sandberg
"I think there's a tremendous attraction for speakers to come to University of the Pacific," she said. "It has a tremendous legacy here in the Central Valley. It has a beautiful campus. I think the Spanos name draws, obviously, being at the A.G. Spanos Center, which holds upwards of 6,000 people and speakers like being in front of large audiences."
Not wanting to commute to Oakland any longer, Spracher-Birtwhistle left Kaiser Permanente and, this January, became president and CEO of the United Way of San Joaquin County, replacing Andy Prokop, a long-time supporter of Pacific Athletics and military veterans at Pacific.
She said she wants to continue the legacy of previous leaders of the nonprofit such as Prokop. It's an impressive legacy — 4,000 donors helping 600 agencies to the tune of $63 million raised in the past 20 years in San Joaquin County. In the past year, 67,350 county residents have been touched by the United Way, including homebound seniors receiving 13,144 hot, nutritious meals and 2,900 children receiving a free age-appropriate book each month.
"It's an organization that I'm proud to be a part of," Spracher-Birtwhistle said. "We have to continue that (legacy). ..."I'm most proud of being in a position to affect positive change. If not for that experience at Pacific, I'm not sure I would have been given that degree of confidence."