After 15 years at Health Forward, Graciela Couchonnal has acquired extensive knowledge about the health needs in our service area and the agencies working to improve the health of our communities. Her experience includes serving as Health Forward’s first-ever program officer, leading the Safety Net Grants team, and now serving as the vice president of programs. Along the way, she has also made many great memories. Join program associate Cori Stites in this fun Q&A with Graciela.
What are some of your favorite memories of Health Forward?
There are so many fond memories. When I joined the foundation in 2005, we were a small staff. On most days, we ate lunch together around a conference table and would talk about our work, family, what was going on in our community, national news, and of course whatever TV show and movies some of us saw that week. Some of my best memories are just about spending time around that table with my colleagues. It felt like a family. We shared so many things in common, and most of all we were humbled by the responsibility and opportunity to make a difference for our community.
I remember the first request for proposals that we offered. The deadline was 5 p.m., and we all gathered by the front door waiting for applicants to drop off their proposals. Someone found stickers and noisemakers birthday whistles, and each time an applicant arrived, we would cheer, sound the whistles, and give them a sticker. I am sure this will sound cheesy to some, but the sentiment was authentic. One of the applicants almost didn’t make it in time, and some of us went out to the hallway and cheered her on. Of course, the truth was that we always stayed past 5 p.m. to make sure any last-minute applicants made it.
Another favorite memory is attending my very first baseball game when Steve Roling organized a day at the ballpark for the staff to watch the Royals play. Now, it is important to mention that I was raised in Paraguay and grew up with soccer instead of baseball. Since Steve is a huge Royals fan and all-around baseball enthusiast, he was convinced that he could turn me into a fan (fanatic?) like him. As he was telling me about the players on the field, I responded, “Who is Salvi and what is first base?” He realized then that he had greatly overestimated my knowledge of the sport, and that was the end of my introduction to baseball. I did always enjoy those days at the ballpark, but it was really about the people more than the game.
What are you most proud of from your time at Health Forward?
There are many things I am proud of, including focusing the Safety Net funding round. During my time as a program officer, we conducted an assessment of what we had funded, adopted the IHI Triple Aim Framework to guide the funding strategy, and created a theory of change (2016) to clarify our strategies and goals.
I am also proud of many of the special initiatives that I have supported and helped develop through the years. The Regional Health Care Initiative was one of the first efforts to develop a collaborative to improve access to health care involving a variety of stakeholders. Federally qualified health centers, hospitals, community-based organizations, and some payors participated in this initiative over the years. It was one of our early efforts to work across sectors, and participants have mentioned it was the first time that many of them convened and worked together to tackle health care barriers.
Where do you think Health Forward will be 15 years from now?
I have no doubt that Health Forward will continue to be a leading voice and advocate for achieving health equity, and that we will play a critical role driving the conversation on racial equity and working to address health injustices. We can’t do it alone, but I believe that over the past 15 years Health Forward has developed and nurtured relationships and formed partnerships that are necessary to address the complex issues that stand in the way of our community’s optimal health.
On Graciela’s 15th anniversary, we also wanted to hear from some of her colleagues. I asked the Health Forward team about Graciela, and this is what I heard:
- “Graciela is a hard worker and completely dedicated to Health Forward’s mission. There have been countless times when she worked until late in the evening or all weekend to address a time-sensitive request or make something happen for a grantee organization.”
- “Graciela is unreservedly and beautifully open and giving.”
- “Graciela has a wicked and sassy sense of humor and is often the subject of her own joke. She doesn’t take herself too seriously.”
- “She is always approachable and consistently makes herself available even after long days, evenings, weekends. Most importantly she will avail herself even when she knows the conversation will be difficult.”
- “I enjoy Graciela’s spunky personality. She’s a force to be reckoned with in a little frame!”
- “I have to commend Graciela for above all else understanding that we have lives and families outside of work and providing support in both of those areas.”
- “She is a good sport and willing to go along with the fun and just be silly with us.”
- “Graciela is courageous enough to go against the grain and challenge others in their thinking.”
- “I appreciate her curious nature and approach to learning.”
- “She is a pint-sized, power-packed portion of brilliance, fun, and compassion. She’s made my time at Health Forward so enjoyable.”
Graciela, we are grateful for your dedication, passion, curiosity, and humor. Your work and spirit have helped shape Health Forward, and we look forward to our continued work together toward healthy people in healthy communities. Happy 15th anniversary, Graciela!