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Media contact: Paul Neville, 541-743-7121


RWJF Partnership Brings Opportunity, Better Health

Categories: Email Newsletter, Jobs, Staff Stories
Author: Susan Palmer, Economic Development Director
Date: Thursday, May 11 2017


St. Vinnie's mentorship in waste-based enterprise changes lives across the country.

As Congress mulls how to move forward in modifying the Affordable Care Act, national funders such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation are continuing their ground-breaking work to improve the health of all Americans. One proven strategy is through employment — jobs that provide not only income, but dignity, stability, opportunity and health insurance.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is known to public radio listeners as a daily sponsor, but fewer people in Lane County are aware of its mission to foster a culture of health or its partnership with the local nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County, tapping the Eugene-based organization’s expertise to help those at the very bottom of the economic ladder.

Every year, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supports projects ranging from sweeping efforts to reduce childhood obesity to data analysis that provides information on subjects such as heart disease, diabetes, nutrition and physical activity. Those projects help policymakers target their efforts to improve well-being in their communities.

But the foundation has also been willing to work on small projects to improve health outcomes.

The St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County has a unique business-oriented approach to funding social services with a job-creation engine that favors people who struggle to find work. That is why the foundation has been partnering with St. Vincent for the last five years, funding a mentoring project whose goal is to help other nonprofit organizations around the country develop reuse and recycling businesses that create jobs in their communities.

“The health of the community is dependent upon the ability of low-income people to access ... affordable housing, permanent employment and health care."

-- Terry McDonald, Executive Director, SVDP

The foundation knows that work — with access to employer-provided health insurance — improves well-being and reduces stress on local emergency health care systems, reducing costs.

This is no quick-fix project, but a slow-growth initiative making a difference one person at a time. With just under $2.7 million in foundation funding, St. Vincent de Paul has built a network of nonprofit agencies known as the Cascade Alliance. St. Vinnie’s mentors 10 agencies across the country that have either built or grown businesses that have employed 90 people, grossed $7 million in revenue and diverted more than 17 million pounds of materials from the waste stream.

“The health of the community is dependent upon the ability of low-income people to access three major things in their lives: affordable housing, permanent employment and health care. As with any stool, if one leg fails, the system collapses,” says Terry McDonald, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul.

Five years into this project, the stories of change for individuals have multiplied.

There’s Tamika Anderson, struggling to care for her kids in Reading, Pa., after leaving an abusive relationship. Now she is working for Opportunity House in warehouse operations and on a path to independence.

There’s Shaun Johnston in Lowell, Mass., who four years ago was a high school dropout flirting with gang life, but today is working full-time at a Whole Foods grocery store, thanks to an apprenticeship in mattress recycling at the United Teen Equality Center.

There’s Shanika Burton, who was unemployed and couch surfing in Durham, N.C., until she got a job at Scrap Exchange and is now enrolled in a rent-to-own program.

Those jobs came about because of the deep mentoring from St. Vincent’s store and warehouse managers, not your usual consultants.

St. Vincent has a long history of promoting from within, so retail thrift store clerks rise up through the ranks to oversee multiple projects — as do warehouse workers who once cut the foam and toppers off mattresses as part of the agency’s mattress recycling projects.

Where they started doesn’t matter. Strength of character and the desire to change and improve lives does, says McDonald. Whether you came out of jail or lost jour job because of down-sizing or age-sizing doesn’t matter. Ability and skills carry weight inside St. Vincent de Paul.

“We don’t care what talent looks like. Male, female, minority, majority. We just want talent,” McDonald said.

Many of these managers have been on the job for decades. Not only are they developing the next generation of the agency’s leaders, they directly mentor the nonprofit groups around the country, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant. They bring hard-won on-the-ground expertise to the groups in Reading, Lowell and Durham — and to similar groups in Orlando, Fla.; Wichita, Kan.; Bridgeport, Conn.; Ithaca, N.Y.; Newark, N.J.; Woodland, Calif., and New York City.

“I want to make sure that everything we do focuses initially on the needs of the most vulnerable and takes into account health equity,"

Richard Besser, CEO, of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

But the foundation also recognizes that supporting growing organizations that act as an anchor in one community at a time builds change the way grass-roots movements do: a few drops here, a little stream there, resulting in a river that all of a sudden leads to waves of healthy change.

This month, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation welcomed a new CEO, Richard Besser, a physician and former acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and, most recently, the chief health and medical editor for ABC News. In a U.S. News & World Report interview, Besser indicated he has no plans to change the foundation’s current focus on a culture of health.

“I want to make sure that everything we do focuses initially on the needs of the most vulnerable and takes into account health equity,” he told the weekly news magazine. “Everybody should have the same opportunity for health and well-being, and that’s not the case right now.”

St. Vincent de Paul welcomes the new CEO and the opportunity to invest another year in helping other nonprofit organizations create jobs that result in better health.