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Karissa Moreno of the Northern California Center for Well-Being wins a North Bay Business Journal Nonprofit Leadership Award

Karissa Moreno

Executive Director

Northern California Center for Well-Being

101 Brookwood Avenue, Suite A, Santa Rosa 95404

707-575-6043

www.norcalwellbeing.org

Education: Masters of Arts, Social Sciences, University of Chicago; Bachelors of Arts, Cultural Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara

Number of staff: 20 (of which 80% are bilingual English/Spanish and 65% are Latinx bilingual/bicultural)

Describe your organization: The Northern California Center for Well-Being (Center) is the North Bay’s premier health education and wellness center. We are committed to addressing the social determinants of health that cause health disparities in Sonoma County; to that end, the center applies a complementary strategy of upstream prevention and health education with an eye towards both the prevention of chronic disease as well as the better management of effects of chronic disease in vulnerable communities.

We provide evidence-based classes that help curb the effects of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity, and we engage with our local community at a grass-roots level to promote whole-person wellness through education, mobilization, and advocacy.

The specific emphasis of our work is to reach populations at greatest risk for health disparities, including low-income, minority, and rural populations – and as an “Access for All” organization we offer our programs and services to all individuals, regardless of ability to pay.

All of our services are offered in English and Spanish, and programs include:

Medical Nutrition Therapy

Cardiac Rehabilitation Services

Community Health Worker training, network, and workforce pipeline

Community-based engagement, education, and empowerment programs

Youth Health and Leadership Programs (iDo26.2 & Project TRUE)

Policy Advocacy (i.e.: tobacco retail licenses)

Our mission is to promote the well-being of the whole person by empowering people with the knowledge, skills, and spirit to take responsibility for personal, family, and community health. Through thoughtful leadership and innovative partnerships we can transform community health and achieve a more equitable, healthier community for all.

The center serves all of Sonoma County and adjacent areas, and provides health education programs and services to over 25,000 individuals annually.

Tell us a little bit about yourself: Moreno was born in San Francisco and was raised in Marin and Sonoma counties.

She grew up in a multi-generational household where her grandparents, uncles, and cousins lived with her and her family at various times over the years – and she always took comfort in the sounds, smells, and feels of a busy household.

Moreno has three younger siblings whom she lovingly refers to as her “kids” because of their significant age gap (12 – 15 years) – Victorya, Anthony, and Erik. Moreno was a competitive swimmer from age 6, and as a child she had a deep love for exploring the outdoors – climbing trees, hiking, and playing in the creek behind her home.

Her passion for movement continued as an adult, and for years she taught free Zumba classes to Santa Rosa Community Health patients at the Lombardi campus. Moreno’s desire to challenge structural/cultural/racial/gender barriers and to better understand the human condition led her to travel across the globe – working and studying in Europe, North Africa, India, Central America, and South America.

Moreno proudly identifies as queer, and she has always championed equity and inclusion for all – regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, country of origin, documentation status, disability, language, and/or age.

Advocating for equity and social justice has always been at the forefront of who she is and what she does. Moreno is also an avid reader, a writer, a painter, and a lover of all animals. Moreno lives with her partner, a professor of literature and social justice at UCLA, and her two adorable cats in downtown Santa Rosa.

What is your role in the organization?

As executive director, Moreno is responsible for all strategic and fiscal oversight of the organization. She manages all aspects of nonprofit administration – including strategic planning, financial management, forecasts, program development, marketing and public relations, fund development, grant writing, grant reporting, quality assurance, compliance, human resources, organizational growth and mission fulfilment, and in the non-COVID environment – distribution of dark chocolate to all employees on “chocolate Fridays” – a beloved Friday tradition that Moreno has advanced at several organizations that she has worked at.

Additionally, Moreno is the lead instructor for the Center’s Community Health Worker training program.

Karissa Moreno

Executive Director

Northern California Center for Well-Being

101 Brookwood Avenue, Suite A, Santa Rosa 95404

707-575-6043

www.norcalwellbeing.org

How has your organization been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

For twenty-five years the center for Well-Being has championed equity, inclusion, social justice, and health for all – and our work is needed now more than ever, to help Sonoma County’s most vulnerable community members thrive during these unprecedented times!

When the shelter-in-place order was announced in March, the Center quickly pivoted to a virtual platform in order to continue providing our critical clinical services and community-based education and empowerment program in the safest way possible.

Within 24 hours we were delivering our bilingual medical nutrition visits to hundreds of medically at-risk community members via Telehealt.

We trained community health workers on resource navigation, trauma-informed resiliency, and coping strategies to address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 in our Latinx community.

We engaged, educated, and empowered our youth leaders in Project TRUE (a youth-driven, peer health education program) to support their peers in navigating the challenges of sheltering in place through social media and Zoom.

And we continued to leverage our 15+ years of success in creating systems and policy change through our tobacco policy work – successfully supporting the passage of a safe Tobacco Retail License policy in Sebastopol.

In July, we were able to reopen our HeartWorks cardiac rehabilitation program in strict compliance with social distancing requirements.

Leading this work is our incredibly talented and diverse team of change makers: of our staff, 80% are bilingual English/Spanish and 65% are bilingual/ bicultural. Together, we are making a meaningful and positive impact in the lives of our most vulnerable community members!

What are the ways your organization responded to increased demands for services, and fiscally, in what has your organization been forced to adjust?

Importantly – we recognized the tremendous financial impact of the pandemic response on our predominantly low-income clients – and we have waived ALL out-of-pocket fees for these services and are offering them FREE for all!

What achievement are you most proud of?

I am most proud of helping to empower our incredible team. Since joining the organization, I have created career pathways for our team, advancing line staff to positions of leadership and increasing pay equity. We have also broadened the Latinx representation within the organization – now boasting a bilingual/bicultural dominant team. I often say that we don’t have a product, we have people, and these are the hearts and minds that help transform community health!

What is your biggest challenge today?

As with any nonprofit, securing sustainable funding is always our greatest challenge – but we do compelling, innovative work, and we are confident that we can continue to engage funders to support the critical work that we are doing to advance health equity in our community.

What is the next major project either under way or on the horizon?

We are moving our entire team to a virtual office! Additionally, we are working on our 3-year strategic plan which will begin in January 2021.

What product or service would/or is helping you do your job more effectively?

If I had a magic wand and could provide internet connection, a computer, and the ability to easily navigate technology to every individual that we serve – this would remove so many barriers for us. The gap in tech literacy and tech access is emerging as the next social determinant of health.

How do you think your profession will change in the next five years?

Nonprofits like the Center for Well-Being, by nature, need to be nimble and adaptable, as the landscape of public health presents a constantly changing topography that we need to consistently navigate.

We need to be quick and responsive to the emerging health needs of the most vulnerable members of our community – and this demands that we adapt and change to best meet their needs.

We always stay true to our mission and vision of improving community health – but our strategies and focus areas do change.

For example, we have been at the forefront of a movement pushing for greater recognition of the fact that Community Health Workers (CHWs) are an evidence-based solution to address the social determinants of health and improve health outcomes for clients that they serve.

With over a decade of expertise in engaging, training, and empowering community members to become community leaders as CHWs, we are convinced that this will be a continued area of growth for us.

Describe a fond memory you have about working with a staff member or client of your organization?

I relish opportunities to work directly with our community, and one of the delightful ways that I get to do so is by leading our Community Health Worker training program.

Our training includes five sessions of 3-hour trainings, and each session is incredibly dynamic and employs a combination of didactic education, breakout sessions, games, videos, partner activities, and role-play to keep participants engaged and actively learning.

The content covers everything from social determinants of health to the systemic effects of racism to engagement and advocacy strategies.

One of the exciting benefits of teaching during the current climate is how incredibly relevant the work of CHWs are – and it is empowering for participants to see the potential of their contribution.

We deal with very emotional topics, and because we create a safe space to share, learn, and grow, participants are often deeply moved by the experience.

We had a CHW training participant in 2019 who was so moved by our CHW trainings and the transformational work pf the center that she was convinced that she must join our team.

She had a wealth of experience and in September of 2020 the opportunity presented itself – and win-win for both parties – she is now part of the Center for Well-Being family!

But more than any one particular memory, I just love working day-to-day with this amazing team of change-makers.

We value, honor, and respect what each of us brings to the table, and we know that we do this together! We are more than work colleagues – we are truly a family. I love my team!

What other community involvement would you like people to know about?

When I have the opportunity, I love to volunteer my artistic talent to serve as a face painter and resident fairy princess for enthusiastic children at various community events, including the annual Mochilada Backpack Giveaway and the Junior League of Napa-Sonoma Ride-a-Rig event. Wands, wings, magical fairy glitter, and children’s delight included!

QUICK TAKES

Most admired businessperson outside your organization: Three of my closest friends: Fred Johnson, Neela Reed, and Sierra Smith.

Current reading: “My grandmother asked me to tell you she’s sorry” by Fedrik Backman

Most want to meet: It’s funny, because I’ve never been one to idolize or want to meet anyone in particular. I value all individuals for the unique and valuable perspectives they bring to the world.

Stress relievers: Being in nature! Dancing! Spending time with my partner. Even just sitting in my backyard under our beautiful California Black Oak tree watching the squirrels play and the birds flit about is a lovely way to decompress.

Favorite hobbies: Painting, hiking, gardening, and playing with my two adorable cats.

My little nephew Victor Garcia (the only child in the family) lives on the East Coast, and we’re now pen pals which is really delightful. I try to paint him something whimsical and fun in each card – for Día de los Muertos it was La Catrina dancing in a pumpkin field with jubilant skeletons.

Social media you most use: Wow – not sexy at all, but Facebook!

Buzz word from your industry you dislike the most: There really aren’t any that I dislike.

Typical day at the office: There is no typical day at the office!

Best place to work outside of the office: Currently, my home – which is a charming little Spanish bungalow in the Luther Burbank Garden neighborhood.

Words that best describe you: Positive, optimistic, creative, hardworking, innovative, intelligent, quirky, and charismatic. And I always wear flowers in my hair!

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