The opening ceremonies of the Veterans’ Day parade held yearly in Merced County.

The opening ceremonies of the Veterans’ Day parade held yearly in Merced County.

“I think one of the things that people miss is making a difference, is having a purpose in life,” says Ana Pagan. “So from day one when you walk in here we give you a purpose and you get acknowledged for that.”
Ana is talking about how a team of 650 people employed with the human services agency she runs are together generating a sea-change in Merced, one of California’s poorest counties.

“I know it’s working because I get letters from the community,” Ana says. “I had a letter from a resident who said he was just about ready to kill himself but my (team) helped him out and got a roof over his head and got him food and got him this and that.

“I remember that case because we had to pass the hat around, because he didn’t fit any category that we had.”

The truck that visits Merced’s food deserts offering fresh local fruits and vegetables.

The truck that visits Merced’s food deserts offering fresh local fruits and vegetables.

We’re talking a few days after a training event that convened local human services directors from across California to discuss new ways they might work in their communities. The conversation is critical as government support for human services, both material and, in some senses, philosophical, is on the decline.

The promise these directors and others are seeing is in how communities as a whole might together respond to human needs.

In many ways, Ana and her team are unique amongst human services agencies because they’ve been moving in this direction for some time already.

“I’ve been talking about the fact that if you want a good community then you need to participate in making it a good community,” Ana says.

“This has been going on for a number of years.”

Ana goes on to paint picture after picture of her team’s tireless efforts to effect change themselves as well as to work with other government departments, residents and community agencies to create change.

“We just placed a puppy this morning,” Ana says. “We run our own little animal adoption program because we believe all life is sacred.”

“The other day staff were crawling under a trailer trying to get some kittens they heard crying.”

The “silent witnesses” placed in local businesses for Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October. They represent victims or relatives of victims of domestic violence.

The “silent witnesses” placed in local businesses for Domestic Violence Awareness Month in October. They represent victims or relatives of victims of domestic violence.

An All Moms Matter program gives new moms an opportunity to learn how to deal with pregnancy and take care of babies while an All Dads Matter program teaches men how to connect with their children. A family wellness program offers training on co-parenting.

A large semi-truck delivers fresh fruits and vegetables to local food deserts – areas of Merced County that don’t have local access to these food items.

Then there are the birdhouse libraries dotting the landscape around Merced County. Ana had these wooden, closed-in decorated shelves built and stocked with books donated by the community. The birdhouse libraries are set up on private property. No library card is required. People can take a book, read it and return it, or keep it.

Ana also organizes a bi-annual playbook session where the community can learn about how they might get involved in responding to local issues.  “We have a past, we have this present moment, but the future is a blank slate on which we can write any story we desire,” is Ana’s message to the community.

These are only a few of the many efforts transforming people’s lives and building the community’s capacity to be resilient.

All this in a county that otherwise has disturbing many stats, from teen pregnancy rates to education levels to unemployment stats. The closure of an area air force base has negatively impacted the economy.

But “the tide is turning,” Ana says.

So what’s enabling all of this? Though visitors from around the world have tried to diagnose the Merced County human services agency, Ana seems most content to chalk it up to her and her team’s tremendous sense of purpose about their work. They’re in the business of healing, she says.

The puppy that was just placed to a new home through the Merced County human services’ animal adoption program.

The puppy that was just placed to a new home through the Merced County human services’ animal adoption program.

Oh, and they do read poetry to each other.

She reads from a card received just this week from a staff member, thanking Ana for her boldness, innovation, compassion and passion in leading the organization from a “traditionally mechanical institution into a passionate, vibrant entity with purpose and soul.”

“I think that we all have purpose and sometimes it’s just a matter of discovering it,” Ana says.

“And I’m most grateful for my gift – which is that I’m a synthesizer. I can take things and I can put them together and come out with something different and that taps into my creativity and it taps in to my passion for life.”

All that said, the work isn’t without its challenges; a key one is that it can be lonely work because of a lack of understanding– though that is changing too.

Ana describes author and thought leader Peter Block as a “kindred spirit,” likewise facilitator Charles Holmes, both of whom are using a language of possibility around coming together to create abundant communities.

Ana recalls her conversation with Charles at the recent directors’ meeting, which he facilitated. “It was like my brain opened and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, a kindred spirit, you get it, I don’t need to explain myself.’

“It was really wonderful, like the angels were singing and the sky opening.”

While Ana is reluctant in some ways to look ahead because she really tries to stay conscious in the moment, she does see being able to change the trajectory of a poor community into one of success — and success doesn’t necessarily have to be in terms of formidable riches.

An All Moms Matters session, where new moms learn about pregnancy and parenting.

An All Moms Matters session, where new moms learn about pregnancy and parenting.

“Success can be in terms of a caring community, that we do the right things for our children, we do the right things for our elderly, we take care of each other, we go back in time to that place and time where neighbour helped neighbour and we make it a more caring world.”

Though that may sound a little optimistic and “Pollyanna-ish,” she hastens to add, “I really do think it’s possible. I do think it’s possible to end poverty and to end abuse and to get rid of a lot of the ills in the world.”

And if author Jonathan Sacks is right, then her conviction is well founded – and it’s not just vapid optimism but something much more potent, which is hope.

As Jonathan writes in The Dignity of Difference, “Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the faith that together we can make things better. Optimism is a positive virtue. Hope an active one. It takes no courage to be an optimist, but it takes a great deal of courage to have hope.”

Ana and her team in Merced County are clearly living out the courage that it takes to have hope.

Writer: Michelle Strutzenberger

Editor’s Note: Click here to read about Axiom News’ partnership with Charles Holmes Consulting and the intent of the stories in this series.