By Susan Baird Kanaan
There’s a saying in Laytonville that people call Healthy Start before they call 911. This rings true, because this Family Resource Center connects residents to essential life-supports including food, mental health assistance, and health insurance. The overarching goal, says Coordinator Jayma Shields Spence, is to build resilience in families and the community.
Family Resource Centers (FRCs) operate throughout California and the US to help families locate and use needed services such as CalFresh (food stamps) and MediCal. Of the nine FRCs in Mendocino County, two are run by the county; The others, including Laytonville’s, are independent but receive some county funding. Additional funding comes from federal, state, and foundation grants and local donations and events.
In a recent conversation, Jayma explained, “The family resource center is a good model because they have a grass-roots way of operating. The county sees that value, and funds it. We become the hub for the community that enables local residents to access resources available from the county and state. ” She added, “We FRCs are brilliant at stretching a small pot of money as far as it can go.”
Communities create and recreate themselves with the help of strong organizations and leaders, and Laytonville Healthy Start clearly plays that role for this town in the heart of beautiful and remote Long Valley. It was formed in 1997 by a coalition among the school district, the Cahto Tribe, Long Valley Health Center, and local businesses, moved by concerns about substance abuse by local youth. The coalition still serves as its community advisory board and ear-to-the-ground on local needs and resources.
Healthy Start is based at Harwood Hall / Memorial Park, its fiscal agent and governing body. Besides helping people access the supports mentioned above and others, it coordinates a cornucopia of resources reflecting a broad conception of community health — Laytonville Food Bank, Laytonville Skate Park, Long Valley Public Library and Community Room, Long Valley Dance and Fitness Center, and more. . It was recently certified as the area’s emergency evacuation shelter. It’s no wonder that every year, about 1,000 of the 1,300 area residents use one or more of its services.
Jayma Shields Spence seems made for the role of coordinator. Having grown up in Laytonville and recently graduated from college, she was back home working with local teens in 2009 when her boss, Michelle Schott, tapped her to succeed her as Healthy Start’s coordinator. Within a few months, Jayma had stepped into Schott’s “big shoes” and was learning on the job.
Fortunately, the Mendocino County FRC Network was just forming, and her colleagues around the county were good sources of training, support, and mentoring. “I could lean on people,” Jayma said. Now she chairs the Network — mentoring has come full circle. At a time when many Mendocino County organizations are in transition as their founders retire, this is an encouraging success story.
Jayma describes Laytonville Healthy Start FRC as the community’s “supportive entity and catch-all place a place where anybody can go to meet any need.” She and her staff of five, plus volunteers, craft its services to meet evolving community needs, alerted to them by coalition partners and local residents. Over the years, starting with a lunch program for seniors, Jayma has expanded the programs beyond the original family-strengthening focus to also make Healthy Start a community resource center.
Like all leaders, she has had to navigate the challenges of the COVID pandemic since early 2020. Having always relied on face-to-face contacts, Healthy Start had to be nimble to keep meeting local needs while protecting staff and client safety. They chose to keep the doors open, but with extra protections in place and more virtual service delivery, a mode that continues to this day.
These changes curtailed many programs, including a popular summer camp for kids (which the school district will sponsor this year); they also undermined local fundraising. The Community Foundation’s pandemic-related grants have provided a critical life-line, enabling Healthy Start to meet a growing demand for food assistance and family support.
Asked to comment on her organization’s impact on the community, Jayma said, “We meet the need in the moment, and often don’t know the rest of the story. Our successes show up when people come back and tell us, and when we get calls or letters or new referrals from others in the community. One man who was new to the area told us he was advised that Laytonville Healthy Start was ‘the first place I should come to.’ “
As for the personal rewards, Jayma said, “I’m a giver, and when I can give and help, that’s all I need to keep going in this job. I also love solving problems and am a big-picture thinker, and change doesn’t scare me — so lots that we do here feeds my soul. It’s been a trip, and I feel like we’re just getting started. “
Laytonville Healthy Start Family Resource Center
- Jayma Shields Spence, coordinator
- 44400 Willis Ave., Laytonville
- (707) 984-8089
- Hours: Open MTW 9-5; available by phone Th / F
- Facebook: Laytonville Healthy Start Family Resource Center
- Instagram: laytonville.healthy.start
- Donations by check, payable to Laytonville Healthy Start, can be mailed to PO Box 1382, Laytonville, CA 95454