The City of Gonzales, California has a predominantly Hispanic population with a third of residents being foreign-born and many speaking a language other than English at home. About half of residents have a high school diploma, and one in four residents live at or below the national poverty level. Rather than focus on the limitations of being a small, lower-income, rather isolated town, Gonzales capitalizes on its strengths and opportunities with a can-do approach, often referred to as “The Gonzales Way.”
Over the past 10 years, the city has made significant accomplishments in expanding healthcare access, increasing job opportunities, and adopting sustainability practices and policies. Gonzales has launched dozens of initiatives that are transforming the city into a laboratory for collaborative efforts designed to build a healthy community.
Community Center Complex
The City of Gonzales has wanted to build a community center for over 20 years. In 2001, a Community Facility Needs Assessment Study illustrated that the city suffered from a severe shortage of gathering spaces needed to accommodate the rapidly growing population. In 2020, after passing Measure X, the City of Gonzales began conducting extensive community outreach in both English and Spanish including several town hall meetings, community pop-up surveys, and presentation sessions to solicit feedback from residents on what they would like to see included in a potential community center. Prior to that, the Youth Council was planning the idea of creating a teen innovation center space.
After much collaboration and engagement, a design was decided upon for the Community Center Complex. The complex will be comprised of a community hall, teen innovation center, indoor and outdoor theater space, and a county library that will be relocated from the current rental space. The community areas will include the community hall, a commercial kitchen, staff offices, meeting rooms, classrooms, a fitness center, and indoor and outdoor theater. This facility will provide programs focused on health, education, childcare, senior services, recreation, and social services. The teen innovation center will include a teen lounge, innovation lab/maker space, game room, and outside courtyard.
Funding sources include tax measure funds, state funding, grants, and a $10 million dollar capital campaign that has raised over $6 million so far.
Community Health Worker (CHW) Program
CHWs help improve health care access and outcomes, strengthen health care teams, support health equity for underserved communities, and enhance quality of life. During the pandemic, residents were constantly calling city hall for information and support around COVID-19. In response to this need, in 2020, the city implemented a CHW program. The goal of the program was to reach residents most impacted by the pandemic and provide outreach, education, and wrap around support to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and promote full recovery by ensuring adequate isolation and quarantine support.
Gonzales CHWs went beyond their duties to support the community during the pandemic, helping with food access, rental assistance, vaccine registration, mass vaccine clinics, and even securing diapers for those in need. The health workers put an emphasis on outreach to the hard-to-reach populations and multi-generational households. Gonzales made significant inroads in their vaccination efforts early on and was the first city in the county to reach over 90% vaccination rate.
Community health efforts have continued post-pandemic with CHWs partnering with community stakeholders to host offerings such as a healthy cooking demo and mental health forum.
Gonzales Youth Council (GYC) Mental Health Project
The Gonzales Youth Council (GYC) is a unique youth leadership and development program that seeks to engage youth in the civic life of the city and its schools through projects and direct participation in city government and decision-making. The GYC is comprised of 12-15 students and the group is led by two Youth Commissioners. Each year, the Youth Commissioners participate in a paid four-week Summer Fellowship program, receiving leadership training, working with city and school leaders, and gaining an understanding of internal city workings. They become participatory members of the city council, attending meetings, and making recommendations and presentations on behalf of the GYC.
The GYC selects an annual service-learning project based on current community concerns. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the GYC decided to tackle the issue of youth mental health. The Youth Supporting Youth project began with the development of a mental health and social-emotional well-being survey for 355 middle and high school students. The survey revealed elevated levels of anxiety symptoms and stress. When asked if they knew where to access mental health support most respondents said “no” and explained that they had no idea where or how to seek those services out, adding to the gravity of the issue and validating the call for more readily available local mental health resources and support.
The GYC created a Mental Health Awareness video and continued outreach and education via email and social media to support their peers, outlining tips for how teachers and families could provide support. The Youth Commissioners also presented their survey findings to various stakeholders, resulting in the funding of a second school-based licensed clinical social worker.