May 11, 2020

Multi-Hyphenate Julie Hirota Finds Shelter

The versatile CEO/artist takes the reins at Saint John’s Program for Real Change

By Ed Goldman
Saint John’s Program for Real Change went on a hiring binge a few weeks ago. The Sacramento residential shelter and training facility for homeless women and their children hired:
  • a chief operations officer from UC Davis; 
  • a former development director from the Leukemia Society; 
  • an engineer who’d been a program manager for Hewlett Packard; 
  • the onetime CEO of the nationally recognized gallery Blue Line Arts; 
  • a previous city planning commissioner for the City of Roseville; 
  • an artist/designer/manufacturer with her own retail business; and 
  • a current elected trustee of the Roseville Joint Union High School District. 

 Let’s kill the suspense. Saint John’s hired Julie Hirota. She brings with her an amazing team: her. 

Julie Hirota. Photo by Courtney Sheridan.

“I’m most concerned with expanding programs for the youth who stay here,” she says. “I think with my background and passion—since third grade, I wanted to grow up to be a math teacher—that will be a natural fit for me. I want to make sure our programs help teach the kids compassion, which is beyond most standard education tools.”

I’ve known and admired Hirota for years, having met her when I served as a member of Blue Line Arts’ volunteer board. When an obvious voting miscount occurred, I became its president for two years, which gave me the opportunity to get a close-up look at her ability to think strategically at all times. In fact, I can barely recall her taking a day off—though it occasionally required her to explain to certain members of her staff that when she wasn’t in the building, she was out raising funds and friends for the gallery, which hosted the bi-annual, globally respected Crocker-Kingsley Art Show a few times on her watch. Even her involvement in Roseville’s local political scene helped inform her efforts to keep the gallery on people’s minds. The turnout for opening-night receptions was usually large—and almost always included a few elected officials, from Roseville, of course, but also from Sacramento.

Hirota is used to stepping into tough funding situations. When she joined Blue Line Arts, initially as its development director, the joint was shedding blood. Long before she left more than five years later to become CEO of California CareForce (which provides free medical, dental and vision care to those in need at two-day, temporary clinics across the state), its flow had been staunched, its annual budget comfortably in the black.

Saint John’s, which I’ve written about a number of times, has had a tough time of it for the past couple of years, even as its approach to homelessness has won praise from the national and local social services community. Unlike the HousingFirst program created by the federal Housing and Urban Development department, Saint John’s is concerned not only with getting people off the street—which I think of as more about optics than life-changing—but also helping them change their lives in the next 18 months they’ll spend at the shelter, through drug and other counseling, and by acquiring job skills.

“Almost all of our training program’s grads get jobs where they can start out earning $2,500 per month,” Hirota says. “On public assistance, they received a little more than $500 per month. But now they have a marketable skill, a new self-esteem and room to grow.”

Married for the past four years to Howard Rudd, a wealth management and tax adviser, Hirota has two children from a previous marriage: Gracie, 18, who’s leaning toward taking pre-med classes at UC Berkeley, and Ben, 15, a student at Woodcreek High School. Both kids are also talented musicians.

An artist herself who creates and sells dolls made from paper clay—it’s similar to papier-mâché, and made from glue and that suddenly rare commodity, toilet tissue—Hirota has also managed to maintain a serious trail-running schedule. “I want to do a 50k run before I turn 50,” she says. “I have a year-and-a-half to train for it.”

I’d bet on her getting there. After all, look at that amazing team she has working with her. 

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).