Anthony Ortiz-Luis remembers being the kid with the free school lunch, the student facing daunting college loans. Seeking better opportunities for their four sons, his parents decided to leave the Philippines and move the family to America, a challenge for their youngest son, but a promise of success.
There were struggles, but Ortiz-Luis built upon his experiences and now leads Providence Community Health Investment in the San Fernando Valley.
“I understand those folks who need that hand up,” said Ortiz-Luis, who has worked in the nonprofit sector for more than 20 years. “I want my two sons to understand you’re born here and have these roots, but it’s important to understand the struggles my parents went through and what I went through growing up.”
It’s this kind of insight that drives Providence outreach beyond the walls of its six Los Angeles Area hospitals and scores of clinics to improve the health of its communities. Providence firmly believes health is a human right.
From providing children’s vaccinations to advocating for those who are experiencing homelessness, Providence lives an enduring mission of outreach to the poor and vulnerable, one that engagement surveys show resonates among its more than 38,000 Southern California employees.
In 2021, Providence provided $287 million in funding and care to meet the varied needs of underserved communities in Los Angeles County. That sum includes community health outreach, health education, free and discounted care and coverage of unpaid costs of MediCal.
Most often working with like-minded safety net organizations, Providence helps tackle some of the region’s toughest challenges – housing for those who are experiencing homelessness, nutritious food and economic support for those in need and physical and mental health care for the most vulnerable.
“Our work in the community is our best kept secret but we believe it’s significant and provides a model for partnerships, shared strategy and commitment to meaningful solutions to lift those most in need,” said Kevin Manemann, chief executive, Providence South.
Renton, Wash.-based Providence, a not-for-profit health organization with 52 hospitals in seven states, released its 2021 Annual Report to Our Communities in May, detailing $1.9 billion in community investment. Under state and federal laws, this investment comes from net income, after expenses, and aligns with the mission.
Assessing community needs
In L.A. County, a three-year needs assessment is underway to determine unmet needs. Based on findings in the last assessment, Providence prioritized homelessness, food insecurity and economic insecurity, said Jim Tehan, senior director of community health investment, who leads a team of 105 employees.
Plans are underway in the South Bay, the Valley and the Westside to provide grant funding to agencies that operate temporary housing for those with no place to call home, Tehan said. In addition, Providence employs navigators who work in its emergency departments to link unhoused patients with resources including health clinics, shelter and mental health care. In the South Bay, Providence is part of a network of health providers that partner with advocates to support patients who are unhoused and frequently use ERs for basic health needs, said Justin Joe, director of community investment for the South Bay and Westside.
To encourage healthful eating in under-served communities, Providence also sponsors Wilmington’s only farmers market at its Wellness and Activity Center and supports the Valley’s North Valley Caring Services’ drive-thru food distribution program, ensuring affordable quality food.
“We started hosting a farmers market in 2018,” Joe said. “Prior to that, there wasn’t one in Wilmington. And when COVID hit, we had grant funds to provide food distribution. We bought from the farmers and delivered to families in need.”
The community investment team also help clients apply for CalFresh and provides matching dollars for the farmers market and for a program called FEAST– food, education, access and support, together.
In under-served Pacoima in northern L.A. and Wilmington near the city’s southern tip, Providence offers a 12-week nutritional cooking class. Each week, participants learn a recipe and receive a $10 gift card for use at grocery stores or farmers markets to purchase food to replicate it at home.
In 2019, Providence and Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science created an innovative partnership to train community health workers. The goal was three-fold: educate people from underserved communities as CHWs, provide them with paid internships and subsequent jobs and have them foster trust in the community to provide low-cost health care and referrals.
The Community Health Worker Academy was tailor-made for Jessica Verdugo.
“I always wanted a career in health care in my own community,” said Verdugo, who grew up in Compton and now is a CHW at a women’s clinic in nearby Carson.
She’s gratified, she said, to be able to help residents navigate the complex health care system and even more fulfilled when she links her patients to care. Like Verdugo, many CHWs return to their own communities, many of them subject to health disparities, and serve as trusted health care partners. The program has a success rate exceeding 70 percent.
“The strategy is to get people employed in hospitals, doctors’ offices and clinics, who’ve never had the experience,” Tehan said. “We have folks to support them in their internships phase, and then we want them to be employed by that entity.”
Planning is underway with a potential new donor to address ways to support unemployed 18- to 24-year-olds who are not in school to train for careers in health care, Tehan said. This program would ensure they understand the education and training involved for CHWs and other roles.
CHWs learn quickly they are part of a tradition that reaches back to the 19th Century and beyond when a group of Catholic Sisters traveled to the West Coast to build hospitals, orphanages, schools and housing for the most vulnerable.
“This commitment to our communities defines both the Providence mission of outreach and our promise to all: know me, care for me, ease my way,” Manemann said. “We are grateful to our caregivers and to the many organizations that partner with us so together we can have a much greater impact.”