By RENEE STOVSKY
Isabel Bergara left Puebla, Mexico, years ago to join her mother in Canton, Calif. Her main goal was to get medical attention for her son, Evan, who suffered from a serious blood disorder.
Bergara suffered as well. A victim of domestic violence, she knew no English and had few job skills. To support herself, she worked at a commercial warehouse, scanning items to be shipped.
Community members enjoy a family day event at Banning Park in Los Angeles' Wilmington neighborhood. Organized by participants in Building Stronger Families Wilmington, the community gathering is part of an effort supported by Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Centers to decrease isolation by increasing social connections, particularly for families with young children.
"I was very lonely, very scared and very isolated. But I forced myself to progress in order to help my child," she says.
Eight years ago, she moved to Wilmington, Calif. Now married and the mother of two more children, Eduardo, 7, and Abigail, 5, she was enrolled in an English as Second Language class last year at her son's elementary school when she heard a presentation about Building Stronger Families Wilmington. The initiative is funded by a grant from First 5 LA to Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Centers in Torrance and San Pedro.
Building Stronger Families Wilmington was looking for ways to help reduce social isolation among parents with children ages 0 to 5. Led by the Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Centers' Community Health Department, the initiative seeks to encourage community cohesion through social networks.
Building Stronger Families Wilmington has trained 107 people to be community leaders, who can share knowledge about available resources with residents and host events on everything from job training to hospital glucose screenings to cultural arts.
Nancy Tsuyuki, manager of community health for Providence Little Company of Mary's Medical Centers, says the community leadership skills training provided a foundation of knowledge that prepared participants to search out and pursue further training opportunities.
"I was very interested in taking the classes to become a better person and to help my community become a better place," says Bergara.
Since her eight-week training session in the summer of 2016, Bergara has volunteered at a community wellness resource fair, a clothing drive and a food distribution program for the homeless. And she's used the connections she's made to find part-time employment with the county's mental health department, becoming certified to provide classes on mental health, domestic violence and more.
Bergara is one of many success stories already spawned by Building Stronger Families Wilmington, says Ben Alvarez, project manager. "Through the wealth of knowledge she's picked up in her training, Isabel has blossomed, become proactive, and found opportunities," he says.
First 5 LA
Tsuyuki says developing community leaders is just the first goal of the program, which is funded by a $1 million, 24-month grant targeting the Best Start Wilmington geographical area. Best Start is an initiative of First 5 LA.
"Wilmington has been identified as a high-need community by First 5 LA, which oversees the Los Angeles County allocation of funds from California's Proposition 10," says Tsuyuki. "It's a community of 53,000 that is 86 percent Hispanic, very low income and with lots of immigrant families that are fearful, isolated, experiencing high levels of domestic violence and in need of health resources."
Diana Morales, left, and Liliana Tirado work on a team activity during a community leadership training session at the Providence Little Company of Mary Wellness and Activity Center in Wilmington, a Los Angeles neighborhood. Building Stronger Families Wilmington has trained 107 community members to share knowledge about available community resources and host events that bring people together to create stronger social supports.
Prop 10, also known as the California Children and Families First Act, was voted into law in 1998 and adds a 50-cent per pack tax on cigarettes to fund services for health care, education and child development programs for children 0 to 5 and their families.
Building Stronger Families Wilmington conducted its leadership training program in Spanish. The training aimed to help participants become proficient in public speaking, interpersonal communication, advocacy, outreach, project planning and implementation, data collection and evaluation. Building Stronger Families program graduates demonstrate their proficiency when they make a presentation at an event at the conclusion of the program. Some go on to implement their ideas to gain hands-on experience.
"So far, our participants have done everything from hosting family picnics and talent shows to promoting cultural music events and exercise classes," says Alvarez.
The initiative includes two other objectives as well, says Tsuyuki. They are:
- Establishing a framework to reduce social isolation. Within the next few months, a Building Stronger Families Wilmington task force will encourage clinical and social services agencies to add specific questions as part of their intake procedures to help identify people who are isolated and refer these individuals to Building Stronger Families Wilmington. Tsuyuki says graduates of the community leadership training will follow up with these residents.
- Building organizational capacity. Building Stronger Families Wilmington soon will launch a program to increase awareness about social isolation with participation from other community organizations so that parents can be identified and receive follow-up services at primary points of contact — day care centers, after-school programs, churches and the like. Connecting those families with activities, resources, social networks and services will then be a goal of all local partners.
Harnessing community pride
Pride in community is an idea that resonates deeply with another Building Stronger Families Wilmington volunteer leader, Diana Morales, who left Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1991, living for many years in Imperial Valley, Calif., before moving to Wilmington three years ago.
"It's a value I learned from my mother; she was always involved in projects to help support the people in Guanajuato," says Morales, who worked as an accountant in Mexico and until recently has been a bookkeeper here.
Morales heard about the Building Stronger Families Wilmington initiative while attending Zumba and diabetes management classes at the Providence Community Health Wellness and Activity Centers in Wilmington last year. She immediately registered for the community leader training sessions and joined the very first of 10 cohort groups. Now she is part of the advisory board, hosting and organizing events to make sure community leaders from various cohorts all become acquainted with one another.
Morales also has taken advanced workshops focused on mental health, grief and loss, resources for victims of violence, and self-care and self-responsibility. She has led workshops for Abriendo Puertas, or Opening Doors, a nationwide parent leadership and child development organization.
"When I lived in Imperial Valley, I supported the community as best I could, such as participating in a Christmas gift drive for children, the elderly and less fortunate immigrants," says Morales. "But this program does so much more than give out hugs and toys to kids. It provides options for families in need and connects them with services and resources that can help throughout the year."
That is precisely what drew Providence to the program as well, says Tsuyuki.
"Part of our mission is to care for the poor and vulnerable, and this is exactly what we are doing through Building Stronger Families Wilmington," she says. "Care isn't exclusive to hospital beds — we can also care for people in homes and classrooms. We need to meet them where they are and help them with their needs."
Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association
of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.