Puente unexpectedly received two major awards in January for its efforts to connect the South Coast’s rural, underserved population with quality health care.
On January 9, Lorena Vargas de Mendez, Puente’s Safety Net Services Manager, was presented with the Toby J. Douglas Leadership and Advocacy Award on behalf of San Mateo County, to recognize her extraordinary work in helping San Mateo County’s most vulnerable residents get health care coverage.
De Mendez says her award came as a complete shock when it was announced in the middle of a meeting of the Children’s Health Initiative Oversight Coalition. Puente is a member of the coalition and a Community Health Advocate with San Mateo County’s Health Coverage Unit, which helps families apply for free and low-cost health coverage.
Over time, de Mendez has made a major difference in the lives of hundreds of low-income community members. Last year, she helped more than 400 South Coast neighbors get free or affordable health care, including getting them signed up for insurance programs and helping them with navigating complex medical systems.
She is especially proud to have been nominated by Graciela Lopez, a manager with the Health Coverage Unit that oversees Puente’s health enrollment efforts.
“This represents that the people outside Pescadero recognize our advocacy. When outsiders recognize our work, it makes it even more special,” says de Mendez. “As a member of the Pescadero community, I am grateful to the Health Coverage Unit for their investment in our region. It’s my pleasure to work hard to earn their confidence.”
Puente’s ongoing connection with San Mateo County is what makes this work possible, says de Mendez. Not only does the county help pay for part of her salary at Puente; county staffers have helped answer complicated questions about Covered California, and have helped fast-track health coverage for certain Puente program participants who needed care at a critical time.
Puente was honored to accept the annual Outstanding Community Partner Award at the Stanford School of Medicine’s 12th annual Community Health Symposium on January 21. The award recognizes, among other accomplishments, the fruits of Puente’s relatively new partnership with the Office of Community Health. Puente and Stanford have collaborated on a number of exciting projects, including the first-ever South Coast community health care survey and a new mobile medical clinic that will start visiting the South Coast in 2014.
The best part of the award may have been the person who presented it – Stanford medical student Jessie Liu. She also nominated Puente for the award, which recognized both Puente’s role in community health and its role in the lives of Stanford students and faculty.
“It’s an award that’s given based on the quality of work an organization does, in addition to the quality of their relationship with the community they serve,” says Liu.
Liu cares about Puente. Two years ago, she spent a summer internship working with Puente. She helped identify the health needs of the community, pulling together testimonials from local residents, county health officials, and others. At the end of the summer, she compiled her research and data into a series of reports and recommendations on how to bring health care access to the South Coast.
She was a first-year medical student at the time, and she says that summer was a formative experience for her.
“I continue to be incredibly impressed with Puente, and with the work they do that’s critical to building a community,” says Liu, who remains friendly with Lobel and describes her as “an inspiration.”
Liu will spend her career in community health in low-resource areas. Her experience with Puente helped her realize that there are plenty of communities in the U.S. that need her help, even in Silicon Valley’s backyard.
“We’re grateful for our partnership with Stanford and the Office of Community Health,” said Puente executive director Kerry Lobel. “Whatever the challenge, our friends at OCH are there to help us meet it. Ours is a true partnership.”