As is typical for Christina Lefevre Latner, public policy champ, consultant and lecturer, she points out that “a lot of great people” have supported her in her lifelong journey to become an advocate for humanitarian causes calling for solutions. “Every acquaintance along the way has helped me create the life I have now.”
A vibrant and engaging person, Christina is an accomplished yet unpretentious woman with an extraordinary smile and an easygoing nature. Over tea, she talked about her life with refreshing frankness and obvious passion for her work and her family: husband Michael Latner, and their two sons, Davenport Emile and Chase Sebastian. The family also provides care for Christina’s 83-year-old mother, Doris, who lives with them and suffers from dementia. The family also includes three cats, Pumpkin, Frankenstein and Mr. Cuddles.
Christina began life in southern California as the daughter of two immigrant parents, a French father and a German mother, who met in Quebec and moved to Midway City, CA, in the sixties. Midway City, near Anaheim, is one of Orange County’s oldest communities. It sits six miles from Santa Ana, which is where the name Anaheim comes from (Wikipedia*). Christina was the youngest of three children. Her father, an engineer, and her mother, a seamstress, divorced when she was 12 years old. “My mother and I have always been close, since both my brothers were much older, and I was the only girl.” Growing up going to fabric stores with her mother, Christina says clothes were one of her first passions.
“I enjoyed drawing pictures of what I wanted my mother to sew for me and I have always loved clothes,” she recalled. Working in fashion retail since she was 16, an art teacher urged her to apply to a fashion design institute. “But,” she explained,” I was told by a counselor that few people make it to be designers and found the expense was beyond what we could afford, which was fortunate, because it led me to junior college and it was there I realized there was so much more that I could do to help people who have challenges in our society.”
That was a real turning point for Christina, who at junior college found many other interests, including psychology, and after completing her general education, transferred to San Francisco State University to study Child Psychology. While there, her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
“As the disease progressed, they tried to keep her in her home with my grandfather caring for her. It was very difficult, but especially for my grandfather. No one really knew what to do,” she said. Christina shared sadly that on the night they finally transferred her grandmother to a skilled nursing facility, she had a massive stroke and never recovered.
This triggered Christina’s desire to look more closely at how to provide better care for our elders and prevent these types of tragedies. “I realized that while medicine was helping us live longer lives, help was needed to improve the quality of those lives,” she said.
That event inspired Christina, who was still attending San Francisco State to undertake a Minor in Gerontology. She pursued her interest in the field, eventually completing a Work Abroad program in England as a live-in caregiver for the elderly. Later, her collective experience and observations firmed her resolve to address what she saw as a need to advocate for patients’ rights and through a series of additional internships and jobs, she worked on projects intended to create changes in the system: coordinating legislative outreach, lobbying State Legislature, coordinating workshops to provide education and resources, and performing social service activities in a large Continuing Care Retirement Community, where, she said, “With the help of an amazing social worker, I learned the importance of a well-planned community, preparing individuals for change and having supported, respected and properly trained staff. The residents there who I saw were doing well, and in fact, flourishing.”
While in San Francisco, friends introduced her to her husband-to-be, Michael Latner. “He was working with a political polling firm and I was studying psychology. “We met on the stairs at a “Friendsgiving” party late at night and talked for hours. It was our shared interests that brought us together, and over time, we’ve found that we work well together both as partners in marriage and professionally as consultants.
We appreciate that we have complementary strengths,” she said. Today, between home life (that includes a teen and pre-teen boy) and work life, encompassing a mix of full- and part-time jobs, they definitely draw on their teamwork to balance it all.
In the late 2000s, the couple was living in Southern California with their first child Davenport and planned a move to San Luis Obispo. Michael had been hired as Professor of Political Science at Cal Poly and before they arrived, Christina had landed a job with the County of San Luis Obispo Public Health Department. They were dreaming of starting a new life in a beautiful area. In the middle of preparing to move, the unimaginable happened. “I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS),” she shared. “I had had a variety of strange symptoms that the doctors did not take seriously and attributed to a number of other medical issues. It’s a very difficult disease to diagnose, but I researched it myself and believed I had the disease. Several times I even asked doctors if I had “MS” and they said no. So, after several years of going to doctors, in April of 2007 following an especially stressful few months, I experienced a massive exacerbation, and lost the ability to use my left hand, and was limping on my left leg. I will never forget the day the neurologist called on the phone, as I held my 3-year-old and confirmed my fear, saying, ‘Go to the hospital right away, you have MS.’”
“We didn’t know what to expect. It was terrifying. I didn’t know if I could have another child or if I would ever be able to work again. Our move to SLO was imminent. We had just bought this beautiful two-story house that they were building, and I thought I was never going to be able to walk up the stairs,” she said. “It is amazing now to look back at that time. I never would have believed that I could have accomplished what I have, or that I could be doing what I am. When I was diagnosed I thought things would be over for me, though now I believe in some ways it’s a gift. I understand the importance of making every day count.” Though she continues to travel to USC for treatment, with medication and lifestyle change, Christina has been able to successfully manage her disease and pursue a rich life—including having a second son, Chase—along with the new home, a flourishing career and a fulfilling life—not that things have always been easy. MS is a serious chronic disease, she says. “There have been ups and downs, for sure, but overall, I would definitely say there have been more ups than downs.”
Since arriving on the Central Coast with her family in 2007, Christina has been involved in a multitude of policy work: developing and implementing campaign strategies, leading outreach efforts, completing policy analysis and evaluation research. “I had always wanted to work on that macro level,” she said. “I felt I could accomplish so much more by focusing on prevention.” That was the goal of her work at the County of San Luis Obispo Tobacco Control Program where she led education and local legislative efforts to reduce tobacco use in outdoor areas, passing numerous policies in her tenure. Still new to SLO County, Christina built many of her current professional relationships there, and is especially grateful for being able to have worked with Susan Hughes, past Executive Director of Tobacco Control, and Retired Executive Director of First 5 SLO County. “Susan has been one of the most significant mentors I have had in my life. An amazing amount of what I know about campaigns and the County, I owe to her. I am so grateful to have had her as a supervisor and now as a friend,” she said.
Shortly after the birth of her second child Chase in 2009, Christina made the difficult decision to leave her position with the Tobacco Control Program to focus on her family and her health. Never one to stay still for long, in 2012 Christina applied to a graduate program, and obtained her Master of Public Policy in Social Policy and Health from Cal Poly in 2014. Work on projects like the Cal Poly Health Insurance Education Project, as a Production Consultant with The Community Foundation for Central Coast Voices on KCBX, consulting with Diringer and Associates on projects like the CAPSLO 40 Prado Detox Planning Project, and with Carsel Consulting Group to do local evaluation work, as current lecturer at Cal Poly in the Women’s and Gender Studies Department and working with First 5 SLO County keep her schedule busy. She says that flexibility is key for families like hers and so many others, raising children, caring for older parents, trying to juggle careers plus find time for their own self-care. Because MS can be unpredictable and potentially disabling, Christina has had to make changes in her life to adapt to the chronic disease. This has meant making positive choices about physical and mental health and being proactive about the future. “I knew I needed to create a life for myself that I can regulate and control for stress. So today I surround myself with people I want to be around. I work with people who I respect and who respect me,” she says. “I look around at retirement communities and see people who waited their whole lives to do what they wanted to do and maybe no longer can. I don’t know what’s going to happen, none of us really do, but I’ve learned not to wait, to enjoy what you do and who you are with. One way the family practices this is by traveling. They do it often and almost always together.
Christina and Michael are totally immersed in their community outside of work: Friends of Atascadero Library (where they’ve participated as dancers in the fundraiser Dancing With Our Stars), Central Coast LINK Family Resource Center, and ACTION for Healthy Communities Steering Committee among others. The two are also involved in the community through local election campaigns, providing public affairs consulting and are working on research that looks at the use of campaign messaging in elections. “The first person who invited me to work on a campaign was someone who had helped me pass a tobacco policy almost 10 years ago,” says Christina. This is what’s so great about this community, Christina says. “Everything I’ve done here and everyone I’ve met has led me to new places, ways to build on the things I’m doing—you never know where a new relationship will take you. She recalled her relationship with Dr. Jane Lehr, the Chair of the Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS) Department at Cal Poly who Christina met while she was a graduate student talking to students about the importance of health insurance. “I got to know her and after I graduated, she contacted me about teaching in WGS … things like that happen here!”