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Community Matters: Making community health a priority in Petaluma

“We all need to figure out a better way to care for one another.”

--Ramona Faith, CEO, Petaluma Health Care District

If you had millions of dollars to improve the health and wellbeing of people living in and around Petaluma, what would you do with the money? That’s the question the Petaluma Heath Care District hopes to answer as it embarks upon a communitywide initiative to improve the health, longevity and health-related social welfare needs of southern Sonoma County residents.

The little-known public district, now flush with $53 million by having sold Petaluma Valley Hospital following overwhelming voter approval in 2020, recently gave birth to the nonprofit Petaluma Health Foundation which is intended to be the mechanism for receiving donations, awarding grants and leveraging additional outside funding from regional and national foundations to underwrite a wide range of local health programs.

To help prioritize community health needs, the district will soon launch a public process to formally assess the community’s well-being which, according to longtime PHCD board member and the Petaluma Health Foundation’s newly appointed President Elece Hempel, includes several enormous health problems affecting many thousands of people.

Multiple wildfire catastrophes and the pandemic have left many local children and teens wrestling with crippling anxiety and depression. Substance abuse has skyrocketed and so have drug overdose deaths. More teenagers are contemplating suicide. A worsening affordable housing shortage has increased homelessness. And despite Petaluma’s overall affluence, food insecurity is still a major problem here as is the ongoing inaccessibility to health care services for many lower-income residents and people of color.

Such seemingly intractable problems can be remedied, Hempel argues, by conducting a communitywide well-being assessment to determine what specific projects and programs could be undertaken to resolve problems and thus begin to repair the social service safety net that was already badly frayed even before the onset of the pandemic. New and expanded services, says Hempel, will be designed to help all south county residents, especially seniors, lead healthier, happier and longer lives.

The district’s well-being initiative is expected to kick off sometime next month in partnership with the Blue Zones Project, a national organization that’s helped hundreds of American cities create and implement sustainable solutions to improve public health, economic vitality and community resilience.

Hempel is hopeful the district’s Blue Zones partnership and the launch of its new health foundation will yield widespread and lasting community benefits that could likely include helping local schools and other government agencies. For example, Hempel says the foundation could help local school districts recruit a corps of tutors to help local students still struggling from having lost more than one year of in-classroom instruction.

Other initiatives will likely include the active coordination of Petaluma’s loose network of nonprofit organizations to more effectively collaborate with one another, increase efficiencies and thereby maximize the impacts of their services. Because the Petaluma Health Foundation is expected to soon begin providing financial support to local non-profits’ interlocking humanitarian missions, the organization will be uniquely positioned as a coordinating hub to encourage and incentivize such collaboration.

But because much of the potential for enacting such positive change requires active public participation, achieving such goals will require people to know what is happening. The reality is that most people in the Petaluma area know little to nothing about what their public health care district is or does. No one goes to its monthly meetings, even now that they are held via Zoom. And other than the five elected district board members who are now also governing the new health foundation, other than a few staffers and two guest speakers no one attended the Petaluma Health Foundation’s debut meeting in February.

Some of this is certainly the fault of the district which has traditionally done little public outreach over the years to make its activities more transparent to the people it serves which includes everyone living from the Marin County line north to Cotati.

But now that’s its sitting on tens of millions of dollars and suddenly has the potential to radically transform the health and wellness of everyone in southern Sonoma County, that must change, especially as public input is sought in the forthcoming campaign to prioritize the community’s most urgent and emerging health needs.

For the sake of clarity, it should be noted that there are two other health foundations in Petaluma, one active and the other inactive. The Petaluma Valley Hospital Foundation raises money to help Petaluma’s hospital, now owned and operated by Providence Health, meet the health care needs of our community. It’s currently working to raise $1.5 million to purchase a state-of-the-art CT scanner. The Petaluma Community Foundation, which originally worked under the auspices of the health care district but later transitioned to funding local non-profits and eventually lost its focus entirely, is now effectively defunct.

To stay informed and provide input on how your public resources should be spent to enhance the health and wellness in southern Sonoma County and to see agendas and links for the next meeting of the district board and its new foundation on April 20, go to phcd.org/agendas.php.

John Burns is a former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at john.burns@arguscourier.com.

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