Santa Ana, CA, the seat of Orange County, has more than its share of health challenges despite the county-wide perception of wealth. With an overweight and obesity rate exceeding 70 percent for adults, its residents also suffer disproportionally from chronic conditions such as hypertension and diabetes.
More than 75 percent of Santa Ana’s residents are Latino, including long-time residents, recent immigrants, and undocumented immigrants. While the population is young and eager to be active, the city has limited green space. As a result, its parks and playing fields are overcrowded and have been difficult to maintain. City agencies, nonprofit organizations, schools, elected officials, and residents have worked to address these issues with a shared commitment to health that has expanded over time.
Today, physical activity and healthy eating programs, built environment improvements, and sustainable changes to systems are creating more opportunities for residents to live healthier lives. And the city’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services Agency (PRCSA) is helping lead the way.
Nearly 15 years ago, PRCSA collaborated with a range of organizations to create Active Living in Santa Ana (ALISA), a diverse partnership that promoted healthy eating and active living. ALISA convened an array of residents, community organizations, government agencies, and other stakeholders to address active living for youth, families, seniors, employers, and employees. The YMCA of Orange County’s Community Services Branch led the partnership, whose other members included the Santa Ana Parks, Recreation and Community Services Agency (PRCSA), Santa Ana City Council; the Santa Ana Neighborhood Resource Network and Community Development Division; the California State University-Fullerton Center for Childhood Obesity Prevention; Orange County Health Care Agency; Latino Health Access; and the Santa Ana Unified School District.
In 2003, ALISA received grant funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF)’s Active Living by Design (ALbD) program. Santa Ana transformed the way residents, government agencies and leaders, and nonprofit organizations partner to improve health in their community with the help of ALbD and additional funding from an RWJF Healthy Eating by Design (HEbD) grant, support from The California Endowment, and other public and private sources.
PRCSA was a particularly active and influential partner, and the agency’s reach continues to grow. Jeannie Jurado, Community Services Manager with the PRCSA, explains, “We’re also engaged with city housing and neighborhood development around gang prevention. We don’t do it all ourselves. We partner. And we learned that through ALbD. I think ALbD set a fire under us.”
One of the hallmarks of Santa Ana’s ALbD initiative was Safe and Active United Districts (SALUD), an innovative program that brought together PRCSA, neighborhood associations, and volunteers to restore open space and promote active living in the community.
It began in 2005 when the Madison Park Neighborhood Association approached the city with concerns that a local paved trail was covered with graffiti and made residents hesitant to use it due to concerns for their safety. In response, PCRSA’s developed a neighborhood committee to consider safety issues and restore the path as a vital greenway for the entire community. Jurado recounts, “We met with the residents twice a month. And we said, ‘We’re going to start a walking club. But you need to be our eyes and ears.’ And that’s how it all started. Now everyone uses that trail. We have built an exercise zone right in their backgrounds. And we have classes for all ages. It’s all due to community involvement.”
PCRSA worked directly with residents to address their concerns about the built environment and program active living activities that responded to their needs and interests. The initiative soon expanded to several other neighborhoods and, in a short period of time, SALUD had a visible impact throughout the community.
“We learned that we have to do it as a team. That’s how we get things done.”
More than 100 volunteers painted over graffiti and planted trees along the paved trail in the Madison Park neighborhood. Multiple neighbor-led walking clubs launched, leading to an annual walkathon that now attracts thousands of residents and includes health testing, a bicycle raffle, and information about access to preventive health services. SALUD formed a mountain biking club for kids, the “Extreme All-Terrain Riders,” that took Saturday excursions and taught participants about bike maintenance, health, and nutrition. Working with older adults, SALUD also developed a “seniors-on-the-go” initiative with events including a senior Olympics and health fair. And the partnership used a neighborhood recreation center for a “broom aerobics” class four mornings each week, responding to the needs of mothers by offering free child care and healthy snacks at the end of each session.
By drawing on the collective strength and wisdom of neighborhood leaders, residents, and city resources, SALUD started to revitalize community spaces for physical activity. With increasing awareness and more programs and spaces to be active, Santa Ana became a model for the positive impact of partnerships and citizen involvement. “We learned that we have to do it as a team. That’s how we get things done.”
In addition to improving parks, bike trails, and other supports for active living, one of ALISA’s biggest successes was advocating for a shared-use policy to allow community use of school yards throughout the city. This accomplishment was possible only with support from neighbors, city leaders, and school officials. It also required an intensive review process, which culminated in an update to the district’s liability policy to protect the schools from risks associated with community use.
“We’re always trying to figure out how we can offer more.”
Now multiple schools and the neighborhoods around them benefit from these vibrant, active outdoor spaces that serve the needs of students and local families alike. One of these is Hector G. Godinez High School, which was built on city-owned Centennial Park. The school’s facilities include a track, basketball courts, and baseball fields, all of which are freely available to the community on evenings, weekends, and in the summer. And policies are reviewed and adapted in response to changing opportunities and needs. Jurado elaborates, “We’re always trying to figure out how we can offer more.”
Leadership that is shared across the community has been critical to Santa Ana’s success. Maria Halverson, a Santa Ana resident who led the city’s HEbD project, was an effective champion and change agent. With volunteer leadership positions in several local organizations and personal experience as a community member, wife, and mother of three, she easily gained the respect and trust of her neighbors. This made her sensitive and responsive to the needs and challenges of Santa Ana families.
Thanks to Halverson’s leadership in advocating for improvements in local farmers’ markets, nutrition education programs that met the needs of native Spanish speakers, and new resources that better linked residents to outlets for healthier food, more people were able to benefit from food assistance and increased access to healthy food in the community. In addition, other residents were motivated to get involved. Some of them became promotoras, assisting their neighbors with broader health concerns.
Supportive elected officials have been equally influential to Santa Ana’s success. Jurado reflects, “Things have changed tremendously over the years. We have great council members who are champions. They’re the ones that have the power to make decisions, to persuade the rest of the council to vote in a certain direction. But they don’t take all of the credit.”
According to Jurad0, leaders exist throughout Santa Ana—some of them in unlikely places. “You might have retired community members who want to help because their grandchildren now use the park or the recreation center. They’re the ones who are going to start an advisory board and start working on things. That’s how things get done.”
During the ALbD initiative, ALISA generated nearly $1.8 million for active living in Santa Ana through congressional appropriations; federal grants like the PEP grant from the Carol E. White Physical Education Program; and local foundations like Kaiser Permanente and the Orange County HealthCare Foundation.
Yet, as with many communities, Santa Ana’s momentum stalled during the Great Recession of 2008, whose impact was felt for years to come. These challenges forced the partnership to be creative and resourceful. “Because of budget cuts, we had to think outside of the box. It was a very hard time. But we got everyone together and brainstormed,” Jurado explains. As a result, PRCSA identified ways to restructure contracts and reduce expenses without cutting services. Today, the city’s financial tides have turned. PRCSA has added new programs and services, and has increased staffing levels.
This turnaround would not have been possible without partners working across multiple government levels and sectors. Although PRCSA is a city-focused agency, it collaborates with county agencies where common goals exist. These cross-jurisdictional relationships have helped PRCSA to do more with less. “I also formed bonds with the healthcare agency. They have a lot of resources I don’t have, and we work together. Those types of efforts help us get more funding so we can bring back our youth sports program and our afterschool programs. But it doesn’t happen overnight. You have to be patient,” Jurado notes.
PRCSA’s ongoing relationship with the Santa Ana Unified School District has been equally beneficial, resulting in long-term commitments to fund and sustain the shared-use initiative. For example, the city manager allocated $75,000 in municipal funds to create a protected trust. Started as a pilot and matched by the school district, the fund is anticipated to grow over the years. In the future, it will provide dedicated funding for maintenance and new projects that support school district and city goals.
PRCSA’s commitment to sustainability is also visible through the fundamental changes it has made in its own operations. PRCSA recently assumed control of the city’s libraries and intends to turn them into centers that promote community health by integrating all of the agency’s resources. Finally, PRCSA restructured its mission and programming to become more inclusive of health and the many factors that influence it.
And Jurado’s role has expanded over the years; while she was initially hired to work on shared-use initiatives, now her responsibilities include all of the recreation centers, parks, and senior centers. She was recently invited to participate in a day-long summit on active transportation, joining public works, engineering, and planning colleagues because city leaders recognize the close ties that exist between transportation and recreation.
In 2010, Santa Ana received a 10-year grant from The California Endowment’s Building Healthier Communities initiative. This infused additional dollars and energy into Santa Ana’s commitment to becoming a place where everyone can thrive. “Every day the work continues. It hasn’t ended. I’m not going to stop. It’s our passion. And we’ll continue in whatever ways we can.”
*Throughout this story, references may be made to Active Living By Design. In April 2018, the organization adopted its new name, Healthy Places by Design.