Jeannie Ritter's focus as First Lady of Colorado was creating mental health awareness and increasing access to mental health services for all Colorodans who need it.
Bill and Jeannie Ritter married in 1984. They have four children, August (21), Abe (18), Sam (16), and Tally (14). Jeannie is a former substitute teacher in the Denver Public Schools District, and the majority of their extended family lives in Colorado.
In 1987, Bill Ritter was a fifth-year prosecutor working as an assistant district attorney in Denver. His career was on the rise, but he and Jeannie decided to make a major change. They closed up their house, packed up with their 1-year-old son and headed off to Zambia where they managed a food distribution and nutrition center.
As lay missionaries with the Catholic Church, they trucked 60 tons of food a month from the Zambian capital 400 miles to their depot in Mongu. Then they distributed the food deep into the drought-stricken sub-Saharan bush. Bill and Jeannie also added poultry and fishery programs. They taught women the importance of good nutrition and food preparation for their families. And in a country ravaged by AIDS, malaria, leprosy and chronic malnourishment, Bill and Jeannie taught basic health care. Nearly 35 percent of children younger than 5 suffered from chronic malnourishment. Bill and Jeannie’s young son, August, became fast friends with the local children. Their second son, Abe, was born in Africa.
“In Africa, I learned that leadership is about listening to people, understanding their struggles, and walking with them on the path to a better tomorrow. We were forever inspired by the hope and spirit of the people of Africa, even in the face of such poverty and despair.” The Ritters returned to Denver from Zambia in 1990. Three years later, then-Governor Roy Romer appointed Bill Ritter as Denver’s district attorney, citing his service in Africa as an important part of the decision.
Ritter has recently unveiled a new page on his website featuring his three-year tour as a volunteer in Africa. The page is accessible at http://ritterforgovernor.com/africa.cfm. The site includes a 78-second video cut from personal home movies that Bill and Jeannie, shot while in Zambia. The page also features two dozen photographs from their time there.
Mental health initiative
Stepping away from what are traditionally seen as "first lady" issues, Ritter chose to focus on mental health in Colorado because of its underexposure and its all-encompassing sphere of influence. "It touches everything," Ritter says. "You can't have a discussion about children, schools, families, employment, seniors, criminal justice, substance abuse, medical health, even global warming, without talking about the mental health connections."
Colorado ranks 49th in mental health care funding per capita.
In her first six months as Colorado's First Lady, Ritter has traveled more 2,000 miles around Colorado, learning about mental health needs from its urban, rural, and frontier communities. She has held more than 50 meetings with mental health providers, consumers, government officials, law enforcement officials, and community members to discuss the complexities of the mental health system and the gaps in it. She has met with U.S. Congressmen and incarcerated felons with serious and persistent mental illnesses to talk about how the system can be improved. While she acknowledges that change will not come overnight, Ritter is determined to move Colorado's mental health care system forward.
Ritter said that her perspective on mental health was influenced by her training as a teacher for emotionally disturbed children and having an older sister who suffers from bipolar disorder.
Ritter is a 1978 graduate from the University of Northern Colorado, in Greeley, CO. She completed a BA in Special Education.