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Vice President’s Message
Grants in Focus: St. John’s Well Child and Family Center

The Weingart Foundation provides over 300 grants a year, all of them to nonprofit organizations working in underserved communities. In its own way, each grant tells a powerful story that sheds light on the people and issues the Foundation cares deeply about. We will be sharing some of these stories periodically in order to highlight the critical work of our grantees as well as to illuminate different aspects of our grantmaking. In this Vice President’s Message, I am pleased to focus on a 2015 grant to St. John’s Well Child and Family Center to launch an innovative system of care for unaccompanied refugee children.

Belen Vargas
Vice President, Programs

St. John’s Well Child and Family Center Reaches Unaccompanied Children
Through the Nuestra Promesa Program

Photo courtesy of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center.

In 2014, nearly 70,000 refugee children crossed the U.S.-Mexico border unaccompanied by adults, most of them escaping extreme violence in Central America. That year marked the largest influx of “unaccompanied minors” crossing this border, although their numbers had been steadily rising for some time. Upon their arrival, many of these children were apprehended and placed in federal detention centers. Several thousand were eventually released to family or sponsors in Los Angeles, which is home to one of the largest Central American communities in the nation.

These children, already traumatized by experiences at home and from their long and dangerous journey, then found themselves in a completely unfamiliar environment. Many of them were reunited with parents they had not seen in years, and sadly, in some cases were unwittingly placed with sponsors who abused and exploited them. In addition, they immediately faced deportation orders that would mean returning to untenable situations in their home countries.

In the midst of what was quickly becoming a humanitarian crisis, St. John’s Well Child and Family Center approached the Weingart Foundation with a plan to create a coordinated and trauma-informed system of care to support the myriad and complex needs of the unaccompanied youth. The program would provide support for legalization or asylum cases, integration, family adjustment, healthcare, and linkages to essential social services. St. John’s is one of the largest healthcare providers for undocumented people in the state and has a proud history of serving as a sanctuary for Central American refugees during the civil wars of the 1980s.

For the Foundation, St. John’s proposal was strongly aligned with our interest in supporting organizations working with highly vulnerable and underserved populations. In addition, not only did the proposed system of care stand to benefit this particular population of children, it also had the potential to serve as a model for a coordinated and comprehensive approach to serving other populations with multiple, complex needs involving a number of different institutions and social service providers.

The Weingart Foundation’s support for Nuestra Promesa was a key component of the Foundation’s grantmaking response to the crisis of unaccompanied refugee children. In 2015, the Foundation made approximately $400,000 in grants to nonprofits working with unaccompanied children. While the crisis was unanticipated, the Foundation intentionally builds a level of flexibility into each year’s Program Plan in order to be able to respond to unforeseen needs as well as opportunities.

The Nuestra Promesa program was launched in 2015 with seed funding from the Weingart Foundation ($250,000 over two years) and from the Our Children Relief fund through the California Community Foundation, among others.

“Over 1,600 children so far have been identified and connected to essential services,” said Jim Mangia, CEO of St. John’s. “This would not have happened without the program. Prior to this, there was no integrated system of care to provide the comprehensive services necessary for these children.”

The story of 19 year-old Mario (not his real name) provides a powerful example of how Nuestra Promesa is making a difference. Mario was referred to St. John’s by Public Counsel, a legal services nonprofit and a partner in the organization’s system of care. He had a history of severe trauma, including incidents of grave physical assault and gang rape in Guatemala. Now here in Los Angeles, after the long journey from Central America, Mario was having flashbacks and nightmares. He seemed withdrawn and isolated, and at times felt suicidal. At St. John’s, his case manager connected him to mental health services and well as integration programs. Staff also coordinated closely with Mario’s Public Counsel attorney, who needed detailed information about his trauma in order to make his case for asylum. Over time, Mario gradually began to increase his socialization and reported no longer feeling suicidal. He also successfully advocated for his asylum, which was granted in 2015.

For all of the children of Nuestra Promesa, St. John’s case managers work closely with a network of attorneys, community based organizations, schools, child welfare agencies, churches and other health providers. The cooperation between mental health providers and attorneys has been key to winning a number of asylum cases for children so far. In many cases, parents and families are also getting connected to healthcare services where they would not have otherwise.

“We were going to see these kids anyway, but what we couldn’t pay for was the system and the case management,” said Mangia. “The seed money was critical to getting the program off the ground so that we could run with it.”

After a period of decline, today the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border is rising again. St. John’s and its dedicated partners continue to work to meet the tremendous need and to continually evolve the program, most recently adding parent support groups. Mangia ultimately envisions broadening the model to encompass immigrant health in general. “The issues are more acute with unaccompanied children, but you talk to other immigrants and it’s the same—trauma, adjustment issues, mental health,” he said. “It would be exciting to create a system of immigrant health services that doesn’t really exist in this country.”