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Healdsburg nonprofit doubles down on health equity

For Kim Bender, Healthcare Foundation’s new executive director, the goal is simple: to eliminate health inequities in Sonoma County.|

20th anniversary gala

This year, the Healthcare Foundation of Northern Sonoma County’s annual fundraiser will celebrate the nonprofit’s 20th anniversary with live Latin jazz music, local food and wine, and an online auction, all to raise money for community health.

When: Aug. 28, 7-10 p.m.

Where: Mill District in downtown Healdsburg

Details: healthcarefoundation.net/celebrateourfuture

Vaccination clinics. Mental health awareness. Care for the unhoused. Grants for grassroots groups.

In Healdsburg, one nonprofit has spent the better part of the COVID-19 pandemic managing all these important programs.

The nonprofit, the 20-year-old Healthcare Foundation of Northern Sonoma County, now finds itself at the center of a series of collaborations with health care providers all over the north county — partnerships that are having major impacts on county residents who need services most.

This newfound approach is all by design; it’s part of a new strategy from Kim Bender, the organization’s new executive director. Bender joined the organization in March 2020, with a plan to focus health care philanthropy on the people who need it most and channel the efforts into health care access and mental health.

In her first year, this has meant launching an emergency fund to support nonprofits on the front lines of the pandemic. For Bender, the goal is simple: to eliminate health inequities in Sonoma County.

“So many in our region have great fortune and wealth. Others don’t have the same resources and find themselves struggling, sometimes with life-threatening conditions and situations,” said Bender, a native of Los Angeles. “The pandemic shined a light on dramatic health disparities in our area. We need to focus our efforts in an intentional way on people who don’t have as much; people who are on the margins of our society and need better access to mental health services and health care.”

Pivoting with purpose

Bender has long focused on the need for social justice, racial justice and equal access to services.

She came to the Healthcare Foundation from GLIDE, a nationally recognized center for social justice in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. As senior director of development at that organization, Bender raised money to address homelessness, fighting systemic injustices, creating pathways out of poverty and crisis, and transforming lives. She has described the experience as one of the most “fulfilling” of her life.

She sought to replicate the import and meaning of that experience when she got to Healdsburg.

For starters, in addition to the foundation’s strategic grants, she launched an emergency COVID-19 grant program that has doled out a total of $245,000 through the organization’s Emergency Healthcare Fund since the pandemic began.

Bender has transformed the way the organization gives money, too, in keeping with a trend in the world of philanthropy toward “trust-based” support that has accelerated during the pandemic. Today, under Bender’s leadership, emergency funding is distributed without restrictions, empowering grant recipients to determine where the grant dollars are spent. Bender has also championed inclusion and diversity for the organization’s board of directors — a push that resulted in three new board members who identify as Latinx. This change means 27% of the board’s 15 members are people of color, better representing the demographics of the county overall.

“Already their voices are changing the conversation,” Bender said.

Dr. Michael Valdovinos, who is one of those new board members, said he was honored to be tasked to help steer the organization in a new direction.

Valdovinos specializes in mental health, and he noted that the Healthcare Foundation’s new approach should facilitate greater equity in how mental health services (and health services in general) are administered countywide.

“What I appreciate about (the Healthcare Foundation) is that we lean on the voices in the community to set the tone versus having a bunch of people in an ivory tower strategizing,” said Valdovinos, who grew up in Guerneville. “We’re well positioned in the communities, and that’s a function of having a long-standing record of having a critical ear and boots on the ground.”

Doing good work

Since the pandemic started, the Healthcare Foundation has been innovating to continue to deliver essential care to constituents.

In many cases these efforts revolve around collaborations with local health care providers.

Without question, the biggest push has been to help fight the illness in the form of vaccine clinics. Since February, the Healthcare Foundation has participated in a coalition to coordinate clinics that have vaccinated tens of thousands, from Cloverdale to Windsor.

“Credit for this historic effort belongs to no single organization, but to the partnerships and collaborations that were required to get the job done,” Bender said.

Bender mentioned four organizations that have worked tirelessly to improve public health over the last year: Alliance Medical Center, Alexander Valley Healthcare, Corazón Healdsburg and La Familia Sana. She added that all these organizations were recipients of the Healthcare Foundation’s emergency grants.

Zeke Guzman, founder of La Familia Sana, said these collaborations have become a major reason why Sonoma County vaccination rates exceed rates from many other counties in the Bay Area.

Case in point: His organization alone has vaccinated more than 3,000 people so far.

“When we bring the vaccine out to people in the community, we build trust,” said Guzman, whose efforts have been so successful that they attracted the attention of the Washington Post earlier this year. “So much of this is about trust — giving people in the community reason to trust that health care organizations can work for and with them.”

Other collaborations the Healthcare Foundation is involved with include Sonoma Connect and the Sonoma Health Action Network.

In addition to these initiatives, the Healthcare Foundation runs the Mental Health Talent Pipeline Project, which aims to cultivate and retain more bilingual and bicultural mental health professionals in northern Sonoma County.

In a related effort, the foundation just announced a $15,000 grant for Santa Rosa Junior College’s Health Occupation Preparation and Education (HOPE) program, which provides support to first-generation, low-income students pursuing careers in health care. That grant was made possible by a $10,000 contribution from Medtronic.

Daisy Cardenas, who runs HOPE, said the money likely will be divvied up into $500 scholarships for 30 students in need. She added that this is a big deal because HOPE has been able to give out only one or two scholarships in previous years.

“This money will have a real impact,” Cardenas said, noting that there are 85 students in the program this year. “The more we can do to help these people choose careers in health care, the better.”

What’s next

Looking forward, Bender said she is committed to building those partnerships to amplify positive impacts on community health and equity.

As the Healthcare Foundation assesses its strategic priorities, she added, it will continue to focus on programs that promote access to health care and address the dire need for bilingual and bicultural mental health services, especially for women and families with young children.

On Aug. 28, the organization will hold its annual fundraiser at the Mill District site in south Healdsburg. In the past, under other executive directors, this has been an all-out bash, including members of the public and featuring a veritable fashion show. Bender noted that this year the affair will celebrate emerging from the dark days of the pandemic with live Latin jazz music, local food and wine, and an online auction, all to raise money for community health.

“It will be a real mix, including donors and grantees,” she said. “It’s so important that folks meet each other face-to-face and celebrate our mutual cause together. That kind of equity is what our organization is all about.”

20th anniversary gala

This year, the Healthcare Foundation of Northern Sonoma County’s annual fundraiser will celebrate the nonprofit’s 20th anniversary with live Latin jazz music, local food and wine, and an online auction, all to raise money for community health.

When: Aug. 28, 7-10 p.m.

Where: Mill District in downtown Healdsburg

Details: healthcarefoundation.net/celebrateourfuture

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