On November 18, the College of Health and Human Services will host the 2021 Health and Human Services Hero Awards to recognize individuals who are making a bold difference right here in the Central Valley. We will highlight the ten honorees in our Heroes Blog Series.
Name: Genoveva Islas
Occupation: Founder and Executive Director, Cultiva La Salud
Nominated by: The Central Valley Health Policy Institute
As the young daughter of Mexican immigrants and farmworkers, Genoveva Islas vividly recalls being called upon to interpret for them at important medical and social services appointments. From an early age, Islas was able to see firsthand how health inequities strongly impact underserved communities and families, just like hers.
“In that role, I had a frontline view of the needs of my family and the deficiencies of the systems they had to engage with for services,” Islas said. “I grew up seeing the same experiences among families like mine; people waiting to seek healthcare until they were very sick because they had no health insurance to regularly see a doctor, folks limiting their medications because they weren’t sure when they would be able to afford their next prescription or families struggling because they just did not know what help was available to them or that they could qualify for assistance.”
Today, as the founder and executive director of Cultiva La Salud, Islas is committed to creating healthier communities in the San Joaquin Valley by advocating for the policies, and system and environmental changes that promote health. Her motivation is driven by the knowledge that healthy communities can ultimately diminish health disparities in the long run.
This idea has been especially apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Islas and her team at Cultiva La Salud stepped up to ensure underrepresented groups were not left behind. They created the “Saving the Señoras” program to assist elderly immigrant women with deliveries of groceries, household items and personal hygiene products – which became a lifeline for many of the recipients who often felt isolated. Through the organization’s promotora (community health workers) program, immigrants were hired to assist other immigrants, in order to bridge the language gap.
“The pandemic revealed how closely connected and dependent we are with each other,” Islas said. “No one should be made to feel like their lives are expendable. I want the retired old farmworker to the youngest child of color in our community to know that their life is valuable and that we care.”
With her organization, Islas collaborated with Fresno State’s Central Valley Health Policy Institute on the Fresno COVID-19 Equity Project, helping to coordinate and lead vaccination events in rural areas where healthcare access for individuals, families and farmworkers is limited. This ensured vulnerable communities were among the first in the Valley to receive the vaccine. When vaccination rates began to decline, Islas – ever determined – led her organization in planning free cultural community events for families to motivate vaccination efforts. Her steadfast leadership has led to improved COVID outcomes and vaccination rates.
“During a crisis like the one we have lived through the past year, you see many leaders emerge, but few go beyond as Genoveva Islas has,” said Dr. Tania Pacheco-Werner, co-director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute. “She has risen to meet the moment and has used her knowledge, skills, and passion to ensure the health and well-being of so many in Fresno County.”
Islas, a proud first-generation alumna of Fresno State, earned her bachelor’s degree in health science, with an emphasis in community health. She later earned her Master of Public Health degree in health education and promotion from Loma Linda University. Since graduating, Islas has become a trailblazer in the public health profession and beyond. She is recognized as a Culture of Health Leader by the acclaimed Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which provides leadership development for those who strive to advance health and equity in their communities.
Islas is also making an impact in the educational sector, and currently serves as a trustee on the Fresno Unified School District Board representing district four, where she strongly advocates for food security and free meals for students. Her background is broad, but her passion remains focused on what matters most.
“Through advocacy for creating healthy communities we can help keep people healthy and that is the beauty of public health – you don’t just impact individual people, you are able to impact entire communities.”
The 2021 Health and Human Services Hero Awards, which celebrates heroes from each of the seven departments, as well as centers and institutes within our college, will be held virtually this year. For more information on the event, contact Beth Wilkinson at firstname.lastname@example.org.