The first full-time director brought on in 2012 to lead Project Safety Net, a 30-member collaborative dedicated to preventing youth suicide, was a longtime social worker. The next, hired two years later, had worked for six years at a nonprofit that supports incarcerated and at-risk youth.
The third, hired in January, describes herself as a health educator at heart -- one who has spent her entire career in nonprofit and other organizations working to improve community health.
Mary Gloner is filling a position that has been vacant since October 2014. Project Safety Net has struggled to recruit and retain a director, which until now was an hourly position that offered no benefits or job security yet demanded a high level of leadership to bring together myriad organizations, from the school district and city to youth-serving nonprofits and mental health professionals.
In between directors, two city staff members primarily ran the collaborative, in addition to their jobs, with support from the school district.
Gloner is joining Project Safety Net during a time of transition. The collaborative, which formed in response to a string of teenage deaths by suicide in 2009 and 2010, is in the midst of restructuring.
One of Gloner's responsibilities is to help the organization move to a new, more purposeful structure agreed upon by the collaborative. Called a "collective impact" model, the new structure relies on a "backbone" agency (which has yet to be determined or identified) with dedicated staff with guiding the initiative's vision and strategy and coordinating the many different sectors Project Safety Net represents.
The philosophy behind a collective impact model is that all involved agree on a common agenda, with set metrics and ways to measure progress, to move the group forward toward its goal of supporting youth mental health and well-being. Key to pushing the new model forward was hiring a leader.
The collaborative has also discussed finding a physical place to house Project Safety Net and its work.
Gloner told the Weekly in an interview that she has always been drawn to rebuilding organizations.
"Sometimes it's challenging because there's a lot of passion and direction, but I also feel that's a place where there's opportunity," she said.
The new job is also a return to roots for Gloner, who was raised by an immigrant family and single mother in East Palo Alto and Palo Alto. She went to school in the Ravenswood City School District and then Palo Alto Unified, graduating from Palo Alto High School.
She was the first in her family, who immigrated to the United States from the Philippines, to attend college.
"Working with vulnerable populations has always been my mantra for the past 20 years because I came from that community and I wanted, always, to give back," she said.
Gloner fell into the public health field while attending Santa Clara University, where she initially majored in electrical engineering. But what she was passionate about was health and engaging with the community, so she started to volunteer at the American Cancer Society as a resource information guidance counselor. (Her aunt had recently died of a brain tumor, and Gloner was also helping to support another aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer.) She answered a range of questions, from where to go for local cancer support groups to how to buy wigs, and reflects on the experience as the first sign of a future career working at the intersections of community, health and education.
Gloner went on to hold several other roles at the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, from regional resource coordinator to senior cancer information specialist. She also helped to launch a National Cancer Institute-funded minority training program, which aimed to increase ethnic diversity in the field of cancer-control research by encouraging minority students in local master's-level health programs to pursue a doctorate.
In the late 1990s, Gloner was encouraged by a mentor to pursue a master's degree in public health, which she did at San Jose State University, with an emphasis on community health education. After graduating, she joined the staff at San Jose nonprofit Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI), which itself was in the midst of transition, expansion and the development of new initiatives.
She said she was brought on to lead a growing health-education-promotion department, focusing on women's health, HIV/AIDS and senior services. She helped to launch a peer-education program that trained Vietnamese women, a population that at the time was suffering from high rates of cervical cancer, in how to prevent and treat the disease.
Several years later, Gloner went back to school to obtain a master's in business administration at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business. She wanted to "get the knowledge and the tools and the vernacular in the corporate sector and bring that to the nonprofit world," she said.
She did just that in leadership roles she took on at Community Health Partnership, a consortium of nonprofit primary health care networks throughout Santa Clara and southern San Mateo counties; then Sacred Heart Community Service, a San Jose nonprofit that supports working poor families; and most recently, as chief operating officer for RotaCare Bay Area, a San Jose nonprofit that operates free health clinics throughout the Bay Area. Gloner oversaw six clinical sites, from Half Moon Bay to Monterey.
Despite rising through the ranks to leadership positions at these organizations, she has stayed close to the community in other ways. She teaches health courses as an adjunct faculty member at San Jose State -- her "connection to the pipeline," she said. She is a volunteer mentor with the Bright Future Foundation, providing coaching, role-modeling, and mentoring to vulnerable, under-performing and low-income youth in San Jose. She also served as chair of the Santa Clara County Human Rights Commission for two terms, from 2010 to 2012, as well as vice-chair and social issues committee chair.
During the interview process for Project Safety Net, Gloner said, she was asked to give a presentation to a panel of leadership committee members on four core responsibilities they had identified for the position. Those were launching an executive board, developing a framework based on the collective-impact model, elevating the involvement of youths and coming up with a proposal by the end of this year on what Project Safety Net should look like in the future, in regards to "being its own fiscal agency or being nested within another," Gloner said.
She's saving her ideas on these subjects for a public announcement at next week's Project Safety Net meeting but said her priorities are to help the group achieve more strategic direction and collaboration.
"It's about wanting to improve and strengthen the systems of the whole community. It's about systems changes for long-term," she said. "It's not just looking at the individual level or the group, which is like the family or the peers, or just the neighborhood or the community ... and (it's) not just looking at policies. It's all of that."
Having youth at the table is also key, she said, and a top commitment of hers. Project Safety Net -- whose meetings are almost entirely attended by adults rather than youth -- has been working to incorporate students' voices into its work through events, activities and other efforts. At the collaborative's first meeting of 2016, staff members announced that a portion of the agendas that day and going forward would be set aside for "youth in action." (During that meeting, two Palo Alto High School students talked about a club they recently started to reduce mental health stigma on campus.)
Danny Howell, a Gunn High School sophomore who sat on a panel of current students and alumni as part of the interview process for Gloner, said he would like to see Project Safety Net support more youth involvement. He said he hopes the group can also address what he described as "disjointed" efforts to address youth mental health.
"I would like to see some sort of way to get everything to run smoothly and get all the groups and projects and such to collaborate to achieve their common goals," he said.
"I'd like this role to not just talk about what we could do as a community but actually make sure plans are carried out and followed through with," echoed Gunn junior Shannon Yang, who is engaged in several city programs.
Gloner said that while she's not a mental-health specialist, mental illness and addiction -- schizophrenia and alcoholism -- run in her family. Having "firsthand knowledge about what it means to live with someone and that association," she hopes to support the opening of frank conversations about such issues in Palo Alto.
"Once a health issue that's hard to talk about becomes easier to talk about, then you have more opportunities to identify solutions," she said.
Gloner plans to present a reflection on her first month on the job at Project Safety Net's next meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 4-6 p.m. at the Mitchell Park Community Center Matadero Room, 3700 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. The meeting is open to the public. To RSVP, go to goo.gl/tGYnOQ or by emailing PSNPaloAlto@gmail.com.
Council backs new roadmap for Project Safety Net (June 2015)
Project Safety Net prepares for new direction (June 2015)
Project Safety Net to re-evaluate current model (October 2014)
Teen wellbeing collaborative seeks new direction, again (October 2014)