Health care services and their accessibility might ebb and flow over the years, but for three decades, Young & Healthy has remained a mainstay for the community’s uninsured and underserved children and families through education and enhanced health care services.
Just in the past year, the nonprofit provided direct and preventative health services — free of charge — to 13,759 Pasadena-area families, with 1,314 of them receiving direct clinical services. Those numbers might be decreasing, said Executive Director Mary Donnelly-Crocker, but wait: That’s a good thing.
When the Affordable Care Act took effect, Young & Healthy led the charge to help thousands navigate paperwork and the health care exchange, which ultimately has helped more families gain access to the greater panorama of health care providers.
“We are getting more and more kids insured, so maybe they need us less in some areas, but that’s exactly what we want,” Donnelly-Crocker said. “Things are changing all the time, but one of the things Young & Healthy is great at is filling in the gaps that nobody else is touching. There’s always going to be a gap, and that’s where we strive to be next.”
That next is already well underway for the health care services nonprofit. Several years ago, Young & Healthy began bolstering its efforts in advocating for mental health services for children in schools, at home and elsewhere. Donnelly-Crocker had been educating herself and staff members on the research of the biology of stress and trauma, which has been shown to impede healthy child development and impact long-term health.
The nonprofit has since committed its resources to developing and implementing a trauma-informed care initiative in Pasadena, with the ambitious goal of providing training, at no charge, to leaders of local schools, libraries, clinics, hospitals, mental health practices and government agencies.
“We never could have imagined three or four years ago when we decided to begin trauma-informed care that it would have taken off this way — we never could have imagined it. It’s like we hit on a nerve and we didn’t know going in,” said Donnelly-Crocker, who, while grateful for the response, has been busier than ever, conducting up to four trainings per week.
Since offering education on the subject, Young & Healthy has trained about 6,700 people in the community and Pasadena Unified School District, and is currently in a partnership with Huntington Hospital to train every employee there — some 3,600 people, including every doctor, nurse, receptionist and anyone else who might have contact with a young person. Donnelly-Crocker fine-tunes the presentations for the medical community, focusing more on health outcomes and a public health practice known as KAP — knowledge, attitude and practice.
“People come up and tell us how it’s really changing their patient care approach,” she said, noting her work at the hospital. As for the schools, “It’s really exciting. Not only are people aware of trauma-informed care or just understanding it, they are taking action and really making lasting changes, which is exactly what we want; this is the goal,” she said. “Teaching our teachers about behavior in a way that is nonjudgmental and is compassionate … it’s a philosophy that tries to understand how a child’s behavior is a reflection of what is going on in their life, changing the question from ‘What is wrong with that child?’ to ‘What has happened to that child?’”
Research on trauma and toxic stress has shown that there is a strong link between adverse childhood experiences and the adult onset of chronic diseases, including depression, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, substance abuse, poor academic performance and risk of violence. Working with community partners, Young & Healthy has launched a program that incorporates strategies to prevent or offset the effects of toxic stress upon children, including curriculum for elementary and middle school students on mindfulness practices. So far, the pilot program has reached some 200 K-6th grade students, with expansion planned this school year, especially under the parental education umbrella (“We’re trying to help parents understand their child’s behavior so that they don’t get to this point in the first place where they begin being abusive toward their kids,” Donnelly-Crocker said.)
Matt Feaster, acting epidemiologist for the Pasadena Public Health Department, recently became a Young & Healthy board member, and noted how much progress the nonprofit has made in a short time.
“A few years ago, the Health Department came up with a call to action on trauma-informed care, and under Mary’s direction, Young & Healthy really picked up the banner for that and has since offered that education to the community at large,” Feaster noted. “They have cast a wide net to make sure all of our providers are getting captured, particularly those that serve youth. Now, when I do community health assessments among providers, it’s a topic that you see on the tip of their tongues. It’s really a testament to the work [the nonprofit] is doing and the reach they’re achieving.”
After seeing some initial success, the nonprofit team put together a Trauma-Informed Care Committee that involves people from the school district, Health Department, early education programs and “anyone in between,” Donnelly-Crocker said. Meeting several times a year, the committee discusses best practices “so that we are all on the same page, acting with one voice, and that is helped by having everyone in the same room at the same time,” she added.
PUSD Assistant Superintendent Julianne Reynoso has been a part of the committee, and noted how exciting it is to see practices surrounding TIC take place in the schools.
“We could not do this work without Young & Healthy — they have been an instrumental leader in this work and PUSD is honored to have this organization as a devoted partner,” said Reynoso, adding that the nonprofit will provide a three-day training to another group of PUSD educators for the fourth year in a row. “They work closely with our schools and important moves are taking place. Change is happening in how we serve our educational staff and students. … I love Mary and her team. They are brave and fearless leaders in what has become an educational epidemic. I am so proud of them and look forward to what comes next.”
The next step is already being discussed under Young & Healthy’s, upcoming five-year strategic plan, which might get formalized by next spring. One of the newer topics up for discussion results from giving so many presentations to the community (“a byproduct, if you will,” Donnelly-Crocker laughed): After hearing about trauma and toxic stress and the effects on children, parents or grandparents often wait in the wings to speak with someone from the nonprofit, and reach out for help. Sometimes it’s their personal tragedy they would like to discuss and explore, but other times, it’s out of fear for someone they love.
The nonprofit’s staff has been trained to listen. And then help.
“Our presentations often trigger something, it happens more times than you would think,” she said. “We feel like it’s our moral and ethical obligation to help that person with whatever we can, be it finding referrals or connecting them to resources. Sometimes we don’t know what to do right then, but we come back and huddle and ask, and we will find you that help.”
That process has become commonplace; in fact, the nonprofit has had to develop a new way to track that data. The nonprofit has been connecting services to people for so long, it makes sense to formalize it as a referral center for children and families. “That’s the beauty of a strategic plan,” noted Donnelly-Crocker, “we don’t know where it’s going to take us.”
In the meantime, however, Young & Healthy will continue to serve as the safety net of all safety nets, stepping in to fill the gaps and pivoting to find the best way to serve the community. For Donnelly-Crocker, the long-term commitment to the nonprofit will continue: “For me, it started off as a job, but it’s grown into my life’s passion. This will be the biggest work I ever do in my life.”
Board President Sandy Roberts, meanwhile, noted how lucky the nonprofit has been to have Donnelly-Crocker at the helm.
“Young & Healthy has always done an amazing job at responding to the needs of our community, even responding individually to each person as best they can,” said Roberts, noting that Donnelly-Crocker’s long affiliation with it has helped make it what it is today.
“Mary is our complete source of knowledge. Not only has she been with the organization since the beginning and no one else knows it like she does, but she has a philosophical approach and really sets the tone for us. She understands the issues deeply, from a data-driven and research-based perspective, and responds with effective methods, and doing it all with good cheer — and that is exactly what Young & Healthy is from the inside out,” she added.
To help celebrate a new era at Young & Healthy as well as its past achievements, longtime volunteer Allison Dietrick is co-chairing the upcoming “Cheers to 30 Years” gala, to be held Saturday, Oct. 12, at the Pasadena Masonic Temple. Dietrick said she hopes the community will come out to support the nonprofit, for which she, her orthopedic-surgeon husband and two children all volunteer. She added that it’s a great nonprofit to volunteer for, and provides plenty of opportunities for kids to get involved through the Young & Healthy Alliance, which Dietrick helped found.
“We find it to be one of the most meaningful nonprofits around — they have great events throughout the year. Kids don’t have to wait to be a grown-up to make a positive impact on the world, and Young & Healthy events are a great way to do it. It’s really meaningful work,” she added.