When Dr. James B. and Joan C. Peter launched Specialty Family Foundation in 2006, they weren’t afraid to take bold risks in order to have the greatest impact on communities, families, and individuals struggling to break free of persistent poverty. This spirit of entrepreneurial philanthropy was a common thread throughout their lives.
Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska as part of the Greatest Generation, Jim and Joan were shaped at an early age by their Catholic faith. They also understood the power of family in facing life’s most difficult challenges and circumstances.
After earning his M.D. degree at St. Louis University and his Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the University of Minnesota, Jim joined the faculty at UCLA where he conducted groundbreaking research. Joan lovingly and expertly managed their home and the never-ending work of raising their seven children.
Even with Jim’s modest salary, they made sacrifices to ensure their sons and daughters received a quality Catholic education. This helped them understand the enormous sacrifices low-income parents make face in order to give their children the opportunities offered by Catholic schools. This knowledge stayed with them, and would later inform their decision to support inner-city Catholic education through philanthropic investment.
When their first child was accepted to university, Jim and Joan realized they would need to find the means to send six more children to college as well. Leaving his beloved UCLA research lab behind, Jim opened his own rheumatology practice in Santa Monica. It quickly flourished.
As his patient list grew, Jim had the bold and risky idea to open an onsite lab right in his office — saving his patients the time and trouble of traveling back and forth for lab tests and results. Launched in 1977, Clinical Immunology Laboratories expanded to become Jim’s sole business. Renamed Specialty Laboratories, the business became an internationally recognized company listed on the New York Stock Exchange and was eventually purchased by Quest Diagnostics. Jim’s risky decision paid off.
After retiring from the business, Jim and Joan knew they wanted to use their wealth to help other struggling families find their own pathways out of poverty. Drawing on the opportunities and values a Catholic education had provided them and their children, the Peters focused their efforts on Catholic schools across LA County’s most impoverished communities. As part of his research and learning, Jim would often show up unannounced at elementary schools for a tour and heart-to-heart with the principal.
Humbled, moved, and inspired by what they saw at these schools, Jim and Joan began awarding small grants to support math, science and technology programs. Seeing the promising impact of these initial investments, the Peters began laying the groundwork for a large-scale, long-term philanthropic endeavor to help struggling schools develop the capacity, knowledge, tools, and talent to keep their doors open to low-income families. And Specialty Family Foundation was born.
With an initial focus on inner-city Catholic education, Jim and Joan also wanted Specialty Family Foundation to invest in other innovative programs and organizations working to solve complex challenges around poverty in LA County.
Joan had long been a passionate advocate for substance use prevention and treatment which plays a central role in perpetuating intergenerational poverty. Inspired by Joan’s passion, Specialty Family Foundation expanded its philanthropic reach to include substance use disorder treatment and housing interventions with an emphasis on supporting the whole family.
Throughout their 53 years together, Jim and Joan Peter continued to believe that faith, family, and boldness of purpose could provide the solutions to our communities’ most intractable challenges around poverty. Together, they worked
tirelessly and fearlessly to turn this belief into reality, by investing millions of dollars in philanthropic endeavors both before and after the launch of Specialty Family Foundation.
The impact of their investments can be seen in the Catholic schools they have helped revitalize, the mothers and fathers in active recovery, the families who have found safe and stable homes, and the children on the path to a brighter future.
Jim and Joan’s work has inspired their own family as well. Today, the second and third generations of Peters serve on the Board and staff of Specialty Family Foundation. Committed to supporting the Foundation’s original mission, this new generation is now focused on moving forward to meet emerging challenges. As part of this vision, we will continue to invest in partners who share Jim and Joan’s bold approach to big ideas that generate the greatest impact.