St. Mary Medical Center recently announced this year’s recipients of its community health improvement grant program, an initiative meant to improve the well-being of local underserved populations.

Century Villages at Cabrillo, an organization that focuses on building and supporting affordable housing, was awarded $97,000, and the United Cambodian Community, which provides culturally competent social services meant to uplift Long Beach’s Cambodian residents, received $96,000.

The community grant program, facilitated by CommonSpirit Health and Dignity Health, is funded by Dignity Health hospitals across California, as well as some locations in Arizona and Nevada, according to community health director Kit Katz.

“At a system level, we’re just one hospital in a big world,” Katz said. “We need community partners to help us do the things that we need to do.”

Causes that are funded through the grant program are determined by a community needs assessment, a nearly year-long process which takes place every three years, Katz said.

“We actually go out and ask the community, ‘What do you need? What is harming or keeping you from getting proper health care? What are your social determinants of health?’” Katz said. “Based on what their responses are, as a hospital, we determine what we’re going to champion.”

The lengthy process occurs every three years, and it involves gathering data and holding culturally and linguistically competent focus groups with residents of each ZIP code, as well as with other stakeholders, Katz said.

In three years, the social determinants of health don’t tend to change much, and the largest community concerns are typically mental health, food insecurity and housing issues, Katz said.

However, where on the list these concerns fall can vary.

Particularly since the pandemic, food insecurities and mental health have ranked higher, and violence and injury prevention also saw a stark increase, Katz said.

Through a formal bid process, community organizations propose how they can assist in these causes, and grant recipients are selected by the Community Health Advisory Committee.

Recipients must be registered nonprofits, and project requirements include specifically addressing vulnerable or underserved populations, having specific outcome goals and working in some capacity with a local Dignity Health hospital.

“I want to be sure that as a community health department, and as a hospital, we’re out there where people know that they can trust us to help, and trust us to deliver,” Katz said.

Each Dignity Health hospital runs a similar process—although it’s not centralized, each hospital is “pretty much on the same page,” at least in Southern California, Katz said.

Past funded project recipients include Mental Health America and Project Angel Food, which delivers meals to chronically ill, homebound people, mostly older adults. Funding has also gone to purchase a new refrigeration system for Food Finders, a food rescue organization, and Century Villages at Cabrillo, one of this year’s recipients, also received funding in 2017, Katz said.

Grant recipients present a mid-year and end-of-year report, to ensure that St. Mary’s expectations are met, Katz said.

“We’re required to get that trust,” Katz said. “And so we want to make sure that the partners that we use, and the partners that we give our dollars to, are those trusted community partners and are well received not only by the individuals that they already serve, but by any new individuals who need their services.”

While the larger network has provided $91 million to nearly 3,800 health improvement projects since 1991, St. Mary began this particular grant model in 2017, which shifted its method away from distributing several smaller-sized grants to providing two annual grants of more significant size.

The modification also added the requirement that grant recipients have at least two community partners.

As for this year’s recipients, Century Villages at Cabrillo plans to use its grant to fund mental health resources, community engagement opportunities, peer-to-peer support groups and more. It will partner with Cal State Dominguez Hills’ occupational therapy program, plus local agencies such as Sowing Seeds of Change, which will offer a gardening program, and CityHeART, which will provide an art program.

The United Cambodian Community, which holds health education workshops along with social and spiritual events, will partner with the Cambodian Association of America as well as Khmer Parents Association. The St. Mary grant will support the continuation and expansion of its strategic program areas, which include health equity and community integration.

“Not only does (the funding) help that one agency, it helps a lot of other agencies here in Long Beach that need that extra boost and support as well,” Katz said. “It’s the funnest part actually of my job, to give out these grant dollars and to see what it does and see what it does in the community. It’s really, really impactful.”

Katz hopes that the grant program will continue to grow and be able to distribute even more each year.

“I really want to make sure that we’re addressing the health equities and making sure that everybody’s getting a fair chance,” she said. “It’s all about looking at what is going on in our community, where we need to help, and putting as much help and resources in that area as we possibly can.”

As the Long Beach community grows, the challenges in overcoming health disparities can also grow, Katz said.

“The more the challenges are out there, the more you want to say, ‘OK, we got this, let’s get our partners together,'” she said. “We’re going to take care of our community the best way possible.”

More information about the Dignity Health Community Health Improvement Grants is available here.