September 27, 2023

Community Knows Best: IVWF Excels at Community Building

In honor of Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month, we would like to share recent highlights from Imperial Valley Wellness Foundation (IVWF) in support of its mission to Make Imperial Valley A Better Place to Live for All. Imperial County, located next to San Diego County along the border, has a population comprised of 84% Hispanic/Latinx.

IVWF is an important partner of ours who we rely on for knowing what’s best for Imperial County when it comes to funding the social safety net. While AHF has been funding health and wellness focused organizations in Imperial County for more than 13 years, we recognized long ago that we cannot fully know the needs of the Valley as well as those who call it home.

In the last five years, our Board agreed to shift funding and decision making to the local Imperial County community. As an independent 501(c)(3) locally managed by residents of Imperial County, Imperial Valley Wellness Foundation was established to serve as an intermediary and funder in the Valley. In addition to its role as a local funder, IVWF operates as a community builder, convener, and changemaker. These roles have been substantially growing and evolving due in part to IVWF’s leadership.

Under the experienced leadership of IVWF’s first Executive Director, Roque Barros, IVWF is becoming a recognized and trusted partner in the Valley. It is working to strengthen the social safety net by enhancing community networks and the civic infrastructure of the region. Through the adept efforts of Roque, the foundation has been strategically positioned as an important stakeholder in the region. Both local and outside agencies routinely contact Roque for support on various community engagement and development efforts.

Part of the inherent trust stems from the fact that Roque was born and raised in Calipatria, Imperial County. He left the Valley for college and work and recently returned to become IVWF’s first Executive Director. Professionally, Roque has more than 30 years of combined experience in nonprofit and foundation management, and has developed and led community building approaches and frameworks in urban and rural communities.

Roque incorporates a leadership style of putting community first in all his relationships in the Valley.

roque barros 150px

“I always say, if we can’t figure it out, let’s bring people to the table and let’s figure it out together. And while we do so, we help people prepare for those conversations, so that they are comfortable when they are sitting at the table and emboldened to actively engage and represent their own voice.” Roque Barros, Executive Director, IVWF


Impact Through Financial Leverage

An important role that IVWF is strengthening is its ability to attract and influence new resources coming into the Valley and border region.

  • Sisters of St. Joseph funded IVWF to provide funds for nonprofits to participate in a Learning Exchange
  • Berkshire Hathaway Energy entrusted IVWF with funding to help communities in the North End of the Valley activate emergency efforts.
  • IVWF was selected to participate in the Far South/Border North arts and culture collaborative as a partner and reviewer. Funding shared between San Diego and Imperial County is $6.15 million.
  • Along with other Valley and San Diego co-conveners, IVWF is actively participating as a co-convener in the Southern Border CERF state program. ($5 million has come into the region this year and $26.5 million is due in 2024.) Roque Barros played an integral role in the early development of the Southern Border CERF regional development.

Impact Through the Eyes & Words of the Community

ivwf community engagement_collage

Through IVWF’s community building and engagement work, it is seen as a trusted partner, convener and capacity builder.

  • “Roque has been a godsend—we would not have come this far without him,” said Nellie Reyes, NorthEnd Alliance 111
  • IVWF has visited and formed connections in every community within Imperial County.
  • Community members seek the advice and guidance of IVWF.
  • IVWF has positioned community members to take the lead in making the change they want to see and provides support to help them be successful.
  • “I want to personally thank you for including us in this effort (The Learning Exchange). It has been transformative and exactly what is needed,” said Helina Hoyt, Ph.D. SDSU-Imperial Valley
  • “I have gained knowledge of the many health disparities that face Imperial County. I hope that there will be power in numbers in influencing our local public agencies and out-of-county funders to see the needs that the rural communities face in the Imperial Valley,” said Cari Augusta, Director of Westmorland Community Food Pantry.

Recently, IVWF invited residents from Calipatria, Niland and Bombay Beach to explore ideas on how these three frontline communities to the Salton Sea might join efforts to increase their connectivity and visibility.  The residents commented that this was the first time that the three communities had gathered. William Cooper of the Calipatria Lions Club, saw this as an important opportunity and the following week hosted a meeting in Calipatria where he invited the three communities to gather again to continue the networking.

As a capacity builder, IVWF is supporting the growth and formalization of local organizations like the NorthEnd Alliance 111. It’s also seeding and supporting civic engagement through Mission Support Grants. As of the deadline August 31, IVWF had received 39 submissions for Mission Support grants. IVWF’s grant review committee is currently reviewing the applications received and will make recommendations to the IVWF board to award grants totaling $80,000.

funder comparison chartThrough IVWF programs like its six-month Learning Exchange that bring together Valley nonprofits and regional funders, it is catalyzing the expansion of participating organizations’ reach and community connections.This year’s Learning Exchange focused on identifying disparities in health and philanthropic funding in the Valley. A recent analysis conducted by the Exchange revealed a marked lack of funding invested in Imperial County compared to adjacent and similar counties in the region. The Learning Exchange exemplifies IVWF’s strategic efforts to attract additional resources to the Valley by enhancing and empowering community voice and engagement.

Impact Through Influence

ivwf regional influence collageIVWF has attained recognition outside the region as a trusted voice and intermediary for the Imperial Valley by:

  • Generating national interest in the region through visit by Governor Newsom.
  • Representing the region with visiting elected officials.
  • Bringing influencers into the Imperial Valley.
  • Serving as a subject matter expert for staff from the Office of the Governor.
  • Recently partnered with Catalyst of San Diego & Imperial Counties in hosting a two-day (overnight) learning tour of Imperial Valley for a group of interested funders.


“It was a great example of the importance of: ‘nothing about us without us,’ and we benefitted from absorbing so many great stories and experiences of the reality of rural life, and the unique and plentiful examples of why effective philanthropy can’t be a one-size-fits-all model.”- Sarah Lyman, Executive Director, Alliance Healthcare Foundation


One of the most important goals of this kind of funder impact is to influence and attract more investment of resources in the Valley. Imperial Valley is one of the poorest counties in California and the U.S.  With a county population of only 180,000 of which 84% are Hispanic/Latinx and an average unemployment rate of 16%, it has experienced forms of structural racism and disinvestment over many decades that have contributed to higher rates of economic stress than the rest of the nation’s counties, on average.

More background on Imperial Valley Wellness Foundation

For those not familiar, Imperial Valley Wellness Foundation (IVWF) is an independent and locally managed 501(c)(3) public charity based in Imperial County, CA. It was founded in 2018 with support from AHF. After many years of AHF funding directly in the Valley, we recognized that our small grants to local nonprofits in this rural region could not measurably or sustainably improve the long-term health outcomes of this vulnerable community. Additionally, we recognized that the folks of Imperial Valley knew better what they needed than we did from our home in San Diego. We needed to find another way to support the health and wellness of the community. Therefore, we embarked on a collaborative and intentional strategic journey to transfer wealth and shift decision making power to the local residents of Imperial Valley through what is now called the Imperial Valley Wellness Foundation.

How is this going?

The original plan for developing IVWF included significant capacity-building funding and a commitment to transfer $7.5 million (10 percent of AHF’s entire endowment) with matching support of $17.5 million raised through the fundraising efforts of IVWF. The hope was that the resulting $25 million endowment would provide a strong base for the community with which the new non-profit foundation could begin operations. If successful, this would result in more than 6-8x the annual funding AHF could provide alone, and this new foundation and resource would carry forward at that level (or more) on an annual basis into perpetuity.

Plans change. Times change.

Covid-19: A pivotal shift

When Covid-19 hit, Imperial Valley was severely impacted, and suffered some of the worst infection, hospitalization and death rates in the country. AHF and IVWF immediately pivoted away from long-term sustainable fundraising efforts, and developed a rapid response Covid-19 fund, quickly raising almost $1 million in philanthropic support for the region. IVWF managed and deployed all funds through multiple grant cycles, and prioritized the hardest hit communities and those without other existing supports, such as the farm worker community.

Through the process of Covid-19 grantmaking and response, it became evident that IVWF had an opportunity to build stronger community support and awareness. And, it was clear that in order for other funders to join our collective effort to build a truly sustainable hub for the Valley, IVWF needed to have a stronger “track record” of success and initiatives. As a result, two things happened:

  1. AHF shifted to a longer-term understanding and commitment for endowment building.
  2. AHF committed funding to help IVWF hire its first ever full-time Executive Director. Roque Barros, an Imperial Valley native and incredibly talented community builder was hired in 2021. Immediately, Roque helped expand and champion IVWF’s vision—to be a true changemaker, convener and community builder…not just a grantmaker.

AHF Perspective: In it for the long-term

When AHF first offered to transfer 10% of its entire corpus ($7.5 million) to Imperial Valley and seek matching funds from others to help stand up this critically needed rural “hub” for positive change, we didn’t know exactly what to expect. While the journey has been a winding one, AHF is committed to Imperial Valley for the long-term.

Many times, we have had to recalibrate our own internal expectations about what “success” looks like, and be patient with the process and the pace at which it takes to realize the shared vision that a rural place like Imperial Valley can create and nurture its own transformational (and appropriately resourced) Rural Development Hub organization. We may have underestimated the critical role of ongoing capacity building so that local residents are truly in the driver’s seat and are equipped to maximize their community leadership and impact. And, we certainly underestimated how challenging it would be to communicate the need – and the opportunity – to other funders so we could join together in funneling resources towards locally-led solutions to some of the most entrenched and complex social challenges in our current world.

IVWF continues to build relationships and work collaboratively across multi-sectors at the local, southern CA border region, and state levels. Thanks to the efforts of Roque Barros, inaugural Executive Director, IVWF is being seen as a trusted convener, connector and change-maker for this rural border region.

And, we at Alliance Healthcare Foundation are committed to partnering and supporting IVWF on the journey towards meaningful and measurable community impact.

# # #

Not familiar with Imperial County, CA?

Imperial County is located next door to San Diego County along the border with Mexico. We may both share this side of the border, but that is where the similarities between our two counties end.

Imperial County is roughly the size of the state of Connecticut with a population of 180,000. Hispanic and Latinx make up the majority of the population at 84%. It has seven cities (Brawley, Calexico, Calipatria, El Centro, Holtville, Imperial and Westmorland) and eight unincorporated communities (Bombay Beach, Heber, Niland, Ocotillo, Palo Verde, Salton City, Seeley and Winterhaven). The county was the last to be established in California in 1907; however it is the ninth largest California county encompassing 4,284 square miles. The average unemployment rate is 16% and average family income is approximately $40,000. By many standards, Imperial County is considered rural and poor, with residents suffering from poor health and inadequate access to medical care.

The County is largely rooted in agriculture and recognized for its abundance of winter vegetables, providing one-third of the U.S. supply. Beyond agriculture it shares the Salton Sea with the Coachella Valley to the north in Riverside County. The Salton Sea, once a vibrant recreational, naturally saline body of water, is now a diminishing, dead sea, too polluted from toxic agricultural runoff to support the wildlife it once enjoyed and the local community via tourism to the area. If you’re interested in learning more about the Salton Sea and Imperial County, there are many studies. See our suggested links below.

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