Embracing Our Foundation’s Role as a Convenor

By Mickey Gula, Buhl Regional Health Foundation

The Buhl Regional Health Foundation is a new health conversion foundation in Western Pennsylvania, situated on the Ohio state line.

We convened a daylong community health forum last fall to connect community leaders and organizations, explore our evolving region, and identify opportunities to improve the region’s well-being.

Over the past 30 years or more, our area has seen many changes, including the decline of the quality of life for many. We are members of the Rust Belt and live within an area of the country that has seen steep economic decline. Generations had worked in area steel mills to support their families, but our young people have moved away to find work and a better standard of living. Our county has one of the oldest populations in the state.

One of my early steps as executive director was to reach out to other conversion foundations in Pennsylvania. The state has nearly 40 similar foundations that fund a number of initiatives: health access, mental health, healthy eating, active living, and meeting the needs of the aging. I learned that all work closely with their local nonprofit agencies to engage them in conversation, educational efforts, and collaborations to improve the health and well-being of their communities outside of traditional health care settings. The connection these foundations have with grantees also assists them in finding areas of focus that can make an impact in their communities.

I also called on various agency directors and individuals who were providing services. Prior to my current work, I was employed as a registered nurse at the hospital. I had done a lot of community outreach and participated in three community health needs assessments, but I wanted a better understanding of the community from outside the hospital window. I spoke to agencies who were feeding people and providing housing, school representatives, behavioral health providers, law enforcement, doctors, government officials and leaders, the religious community, senior citizens, veterans, and many other active community members. These were the types of organizations and populations we hoped to gather at our forum.

I learned of another foundation in the Pittsburgh area, Jefferson Regional Health Foundation, that conducted a successful community health forum. Its executive director shared the steps she took and contact information for the consultant who assisted her foundation in planning its health forum. Together with the consultant, we identified our local forum planning team. We had a large list of people to invite, and we wanted to make it meaningful and productive for all involved.

A national speaker was in attendance to discuss the impact of poverty and the social determinants of health. We also had a panel discussion of local experts including a physician, the former director of the Urban League, the executive director of our Behavioral Health Commission, and a representative from Penn State University to talk about economic development.

Our consultant recommended we focus on three specific groups: the residents, the families, and the community. We asked the participants to identify the assets, the challenges, and the opportunities for each group. We gained a great deal of information.

Sixty-two percent of participants completed an evaluation, and 98% said they had a better understanding of the social determinants of health and the impact on the community. Ninety percent developed a better understanding of the impact of poverty. The greatest reward is they asked for another forum!

Our community wants to continue its learning and involvement to impact the health needs of our area, and they indicated they see the foundation as a convener and a supporter of collaboration and coordination. To them we are a funder, a provider of information, and a change maker.

The information we received and the relationships we started to build through the forum are very important to us as we move forward as a new foundation. I learned that solutions can come from the community, but it does take time to engage them, ask questions, listen closely, and celebrate small achievements.

Michaelene (Mickey) Gula is executive director of the Buhl Regional Health Foundation. Ms. Gula provides organizational skills and leadership for the Foundation’s start-up process and promotes partnerships, programs, and grants that advance the Buhl mission to improve the health and wellbeing of residents and communities served by Sharon Regional Health System. Previously with Sharon Regional for 38 years, Ms. Gula served in numerous capacities including Director of the Women’s Center, Director of Acute Care and Manager of the Breast Care Center.

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