A conversation with Jayma Shields Spence – The Ukiah Daily Journal

By Susan Baird Kanaan

There’s a saying in Laytonville that people call Healthy Start before they call 911. It rings true because this family resource center connects residents to essential life support services, including food, mental health assistance and health insurance. The overarching goal, says coordinator Jayma Shields Spence, is to build family and community resilience.

Family Resource Centers (FRCs) operate throughout California and the United States to help families locate and use needed services such as CalFresh (food stamps) and MediCal. Of the nine FRCs in Mendocino County, two are county-run; the others, including Laytonville, are independent but receive county funding. Additional funding comes from federal, state, and foundation grants, as well as donations and local events.

In a recent conversation, Jayma explained, “The family resource center is a good model because it works locally. The county sees this value and funds it. We become the community hub that connects local residents to resources available across the county and state. She added: “We FRC are brilliant at stretching a little pot of money as far as we can.”

Communities are created and recreated with the help of strong organizations and leaders, and Laytonville Healthy Start clearly plays that role for this town in the heart of the beautiful and remote Long Valley. It was formed in 1997 by a coalition between the school district, the Cahto Tribe, the Long Valley Health Center and local businesses, driven by concerns about substance abuse among local youth. The coalition continues to serve as a community advisory board and ear to the ground on local needs and resources.

Friends of the Long Valley Public Library at the Book Room.

Healthy Start is based in Harwood Hall/Memorial Park, its fiscal agent and governing body. In addition to helping people access the supports mentioned above and others, he coordinates a multitude of resources reflecting a broad understanding of community health – Laytonville Food Bank, Laytonville Skate Park, Long Valley Public Library and Community Room, Long Valley Dance and Fitness Center, and more. It was recently certified as the area’s emergency escape shelter. It’s no wonder that every year around 1,000 of the area’s 1,300 residents use one or more of its services.

Jayma Shields Spence seems made for the role of coordinator. Growing up in Laytonville and recently graduating from college, she was back home working with local teens in 2009 when her boss, Michelle Schott, asked her to take over as coordinator of Healthy Start. Within months, Jayma had stepped into Schott’s “big shoes” and was learning on the job.

Fortunately, the Mendocino County FRC network had just been formed, and their county colleagues were good sources of training, support, and mentorship. “I could lean on people,” Jayma said. Now she chairs the Network – mentoring has come full circle. At a time when many Mendocino County organizations are in transition as their founders retire, this is an encouraging achievement.

Jayma describes Laytonville Healthy Start FRC as “the community’s support and catch-all entity – a place anyone can go to meet any need.” She and her team of five, along with volunteers, tailor her services to meet the changing needs of the community, alerted by coalition partners and local residents. Over the years, beginning with a breakfast program for seniors, Jayma has expanded the programs beyond the initial focus of family building to also make Healthy Start a community resource center.

Like all leaders, she has faced the challenges of the COVID pandemic since the start of 2020. Having always relied on face-to-face contact, Healthy Start has had to be nimble to continue to respond to local needs while protecting the safety of staff and customers. They opted to keep the doors open, but with additional protections in place and more virtual service delivery, a mode that continues to this day.

Courses on healthy eating and the preparation of snacks in the summer program.
Courses on healthy eating and the preparation of snacks in the summer program.

These changes cut many programs, including a popular summer camp for children (which the school district will sponsor this year); they also undermined local fundraising. The Community Foundation’s pandemic-related grants have provided an essential lifeline, allowing Healthy Start to meet a growing demand for food assistance and family support.

When asked to comment on her organization’s impact on the community, Jayma said, “We respond to the need in the moment and oftentimes we don’t know the rest of the story. Our successes show up when people come back and tell us, and when we get calls or letters or new referrals from other members of the community. A man who was new to the area told us that he had been told that Laytonville Healthy Start was “the first place I should come”.

Regarding personal awards, Jayma said, “I’m a giver, and when I can give and help, that’s all I need to continue in this work. I also like to solve problems and am a global thinker, and change doesn’t scare me, so a lot of what we do here feeds my soul. It’s been a journey, and I feel like we’re just getting started.

Laytonville Healthy Start Family Resource Center

  • Jayma Shields Spence, Coordinator
  • 44400 Willis Ave, Laytonville
  • (707) 984-8089
  • Hours: Open MTW 9-5; available by phone Thu/F
  • Facebook: Laytonville Healthy Start Family Resource Center
  • Instagram: laytonville.healthy.start
  • laytonville.org/healthystart
  • Check donations, payable to Laytonville Healthy Start, can be mailed to PO Box 1382, Laytonville, CA 95454
Children in the summer program visit the book room, where they can choose free books.
Children in the summer program visit the book room, where they can choose free books.

Comments are closed.