First published in the June 16 print issue of the Pasadena Outlook.
Young & Healthy Executive Director Mary Donnelly-Crocker never thought she would cap off a lifelong career by leading the health-care and family-services nonprofit through a global pandemic, but truth be told, she had spent 32 years preparing for the task.
As the only leader the organization has known since its inception, Donnelly-Crocker has crafted the art of pivoting to meet the needs across Pasadena, which was essential to steward the nonprofit through the coronavirus.
From providing a full array of medical and mental health-care treatment services to children and their families, Young & Healthy has grown to expand into advocacy, education, access-to-care and Trauma Informed Care fields, as well as health insurance enrollment and even tax assistance. Whatever it takes to fill in the gaps of care for Pasadena’s most vulnerable families, Young & Healthy has been there.
During the pandemic, the nonprofit shifted strategies to offer thousands of COVID tests, prepare home supply boxes, deliver food, supply headphone sets for students and act as a resource center of information.
“I think in some ways, we were pretty well positioned to change, and change quickly, and make big changes and then small, and then change a million different ways all over again,” Donnelly-Crocker noted, laughing, from her much-scaled down office at Young & Healthy headquarters. She’s been steadily packing up her more than three decades worth of research, books, files and photos in preparation for her last day on June 30.
She’ll be retiring and soon moving to Santa Cruz with her family to bask in the glow of her children and small grandchildren.
By now, she is ready: “I have never worked so hard in my life as I did during the pandemic,” she said, “but I also realized what amazing people surround me. We have hundreds of volunteers, incredible partnerships and staff and we have an amazing board that is really faithful to our founding philosophy of going where the need is. Having a board that supports people being flexible and pivoting and understanding, in this case, that the changes we were experiencing were wild and we had to go with the flow was essential; and that’s been an underlying philosophy that I hope survives past me, because I think it’s one of the things that makes Young & Healthy so unique, is our ability to move with what the community need is.”
The ability to find the need is something Donnelly-Crocker compares to the art of “peeling an onion.”
Recently, one woman was urgently asking for tax assistance — one of the nonprofit’s newer growth areas — so that she might get some tax refund money to pay for thousands of dollars’ worth of dental work.
When staff learned that the woman already had Medicaid, alarm bells went off as to why she would have to pay that much. Upon further digging, it turned out the dentist was fraudulently over-billing her. So Young & Healthy found her a new dental provider, helped her set up an appointment, and, got her taxes done with money to keep.
“We have a million little stories like that; I can’t tell you how many times someone might reach out for one thing and then we end up helping them with something seemingly unrelated,” she explained.
Young & Healthy’s mission is to provide access to high-quality health care for uninsured and underserved children and families, and to improve the quality of life for all children in the greater Pasadena area through prevention, education, and enhanced health care services.
Since the organization’s founding in 1989, Young & Healthy has provided $25,945,400 in volunteer medical services; has cared for 30,750 patients; and currently boasts 351 volunteer medical professionals.
Under Crocker-Donnelly’s leadership during the pandemic, she helped guide the organization to become an early leader in COVID testing and vaccination distribution, all while keeping the organization on sound financial footing.
Young & Healthy Board President Sandy Roberts noted that for as much as Donnelly-Crocker will be missed, her legacy will remain.
“Mary has become an icon in Pasadena for understanding the critical needs of children and families in our community. She has changed the lives and made a lasting positive impact on not only the kids that Young & Healthy has supported, but every person she has come into contact with,” she said. “The depth of Mary’s understanding of our community and what our children need in a crisis is unparalleled. The last few years have presented so many unexpected scenarios, but Mary’s focus has always and unflinchingly been on helping the people around her.
“She is a phenomenal leader because she is able to keep the focus on Young & Healthy’s mission to provide care for children, and, at the same time, understand and respond to the needs and challenges that our staff are facing.”
Donnelly-Crocker, who is known for her warmth, humor and compassion, has been known to make fast friends. Indeed, she has a small army of them among her staff, volunteers, service providers and partners across the city.
“I think rallying the troops is the most important part of my job,” Donnelly-Crocker said. “Rallying people around a cause, but then making it tangible so that people can do something: everybody can’t do everything, but everybody can do something. By creating a structure so that people can participate in the greater good, they can be a part of solving this intractable problem to do good in the world.”
As for her dreams for Young & Healthy’s successful future, Donnelly-Crocker foresees the nonprofit doubling down on education, tax preparation and becoming a more formal information referral center, as well as making a big push for more mental-health resources.
In a letter to the Young & Healthy community announcing her retirement, Donnelly-Crocker said: “This work has fed my soul,” she wrote. “I can’t imagine who I would be if I hadn’t had the experience of watching this place grow and become all that it’s become.”