By Mary Lou Goeke
Executive Director of the United Way of Santa Cruz County
Farm workers, business owners, teachers, teens, and elected officials—a cross-section of our community in Santa Cruz County, California—all came together recently to fundraise for a crucial program, the Aztecas Youth Soccer Academy. Founded by a probation officer, Aztecas uses soccer training and mentoring to redirect the lives of at-risk Latino youth who struggle with gangs, violence and poverty. This unity, this experience of rallying together behind an important cause, has become the norm in Santa Cruz County.
In Santa Cruz, we’re committed to coming together across sectors and across the community to engage everyone in the mission of improving health for our residents. At the United Way of Santa Cruz County, health is central to our primary goals: building a community that allows residents to prosper, ensuring children succeed in school, and helping families become financially independent.
More than two decades ago, stakeholders seeking to create a healthy community realized that their fates are intertwined. Our law enforcement officers would not succeed without our education leaders; our education leaders would not succeed without our faith communities; and our health care community and our social service sector would not succeed without involvement from the entire community.
Since then, we’ve joined forces to create and implement a variety of programs aimed at improving quality of life. We’ve worked to ensure all children have access to comprehensive medical, dental, vision and psychological care. We’ve launched an alternative-to-incarceration program that provides education, employment, treatment and social services to get people’s lives back on track. We’ve seen tremendous successes from our teen advocacy and leadership group, Jóvenes SANOS (Spanish for Healthy Youth), who helped enact policies to create healthier options in restaurants and corner markets.
We’ve seen seemingly unlikely allies drive forward work on important causes. Ecology Action, a local environmental organization, has been a great partner in reducing and preventing obesity through their work to create bike lanes, safe routes to school, and housing close to public transportation. Local law enforcement has sought our group’s help with pressing challenges, such as a recent increase in youth violence, acknowledging they can’t address the underlying problems alone.
In 2013, Santa Cruz was a winner of the inaugural Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize, which celebrates communities that have placed a priority on health and are creating powerful partnerships and deep commitments to help people live healthier lives.
Winning the Prize helped validate the work we were doing to build a Culture of Health and gave us the pride and confidence to tackle even tougher issues, such as homelessness, youth violence, and criminal justice reform.
Our committee to end homelessness, for example, is now implementing an innovative system to address the housing and health needs of homeless individuals and families. Using handheld devices, a variety of providers will use a shared system to identify and assess people’s needs, match them with the right resources, track the services they receive, and follow their progress over time.
When a challenge is identified, we’re able to bring together a roster of partners who already have strong relationships and strong records of success. We begin with the end goal – that everyone in Santa Cruz County should have access to safe, stable housing, for example – and identify the stakeholders who would play a role in making this a reality, including the people we’re trying to serve. Then we bring those people to the table. As a group, we turn data into action. Our every step is guided by the Community Assessment Project, an annual publication that details community goals and measures progress on air quality, unemployment, high school graduation, crime rates and other indicators.
Of course, this didn’t happen overnight. We had to build the right infrastructure for these partnerships to take place. We’ve trained more than 300 people from partner organizations on working productively in groups. We’ve refined this approach to collaboration for more than 20 years, and it’s become a discipline for us.
We’re all in this together, and, with each project, we’re taking important steps toward creating a culture that enables our residents to live the healthiest life possible.