In this case and others, such as working to curb binge drinking among area youth and providing health insurance for nearly every child in the county under the age of 5, the United Way of Santa Cruz County canvassed the community for support. For example, in response to an influx of prisoners from overcrowded state prisons, the United Way held a series of town hall meetings to address the issue as a public health problem to build support for releasing, while monitoring and rehabilitating, minor criminals. These meetings featured the offenders and experts in criminology and ultimately won the support of the community, which was necessary to ensure the newly-released prisoners could find a place to live and work, says Mary Lou Goeke, executive director of the United Way of Santa Cruz County.
After three months, 90 percent of these offenders stayed out of jail. In contrast, 70 percent of people who are released from jail without any rehabilitation are back in prison within three months, says Megan Joseph, the agency's director of community organizing.
Such solutions "don't pigeonhole a problem or a person but see how all the different parts of the community can get involved in eliminating problems or improving lives," Goeke says. "Interventions at the person level are not effective ... You can give nutrition education until the cows come home, but just being educated is not going to make a child have a healthy choice," she says. What will? "If you build a community where everybody's working toward this healthy environment, where you make it easy not to drink, you make it easy to have healthy food and fun exercise," she says. "Then you transform the community rather than transforming the people, and once you transform the community, the people get healthier."