St. Vincent’s House’s Collaboration, Strategy, and Compassion Creates Better Health Outcomes in Galveston
Paula Tobon, Executive Director of St. Vincent’s House in Galveston, Texas, leads through strong partnerships, strategic planning, and a deep passion for her staff and fellow community members.
Active in her community, Ms. Tobon serves on several advisory committees within the UTMB system, including the UTMB SPPH (School for Public and Population Health) Practice Committee, is a board member for Galveston Co-Care, an executive member of REACH (Research, Education, and Community Health Coalition), a member of the National Forum for Latino Healthcare Executives, a diplomat for the American College of Healthcare Executives, and a recent award recipient of the Liberty Bell Award given by the Galveston County Bar Association to one outstanding non-lawyer in Texas who has made the most selfless contribution to his or her community. Her education from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor’s degree in psychology has equipped her with the skills to collaborate with diverse people, and her career background at UT School of Public Health as Administrator of Special Projects, UTMB Associate VP of Strategic Initiatives at the Office of the President, and Associate Administrator at the Angleton Danbury Hospital District for over 20 years has made her the beacon St. Vincent’s House was searching for to raise the bar and become more impactful as an organization. Lastly, her compassion for others makes her not just an executive, but a supportive shoulder for her staff and the many clients they serve on a daily basis.
St. Vincent’s House mission is to provide essential services and resources to empower families and individuals to become healthy, self-sustaining, and contributing members of the Galveston community. Offering wrap-around services in a holistic, unique health care model, if there’s a need, St. Vincent’s House can likely help—and if not, they’ll find a local organization who will provide that service. From a food pantry to clinical services, counseling, emergency assistance, drug abuse programs, housing programs, and more—it’s amazing they can get it all done in a 14,000 square foot building.
“The model we offer at St. Vincent’s House is like no other I’ve ever seen,” said Ms. Tobon. “We have a medical component, over twenty clinics, a partnership with UTMB, amazing things. Through our collaboration with Family Service Center we’re able to offer mental health services, and on the St. Vincent’s House side, we offer social services and look at the social determinants of health.”
How does one organization offer so many services to their community? The answer is teamwork and collaboration.
Ms. Tobon recalls helping a gentleman named Tim who visited St. Vincent’s House with a flu, after losing four days of work.
“And because he lived on the edge, he had no savings, it was paycheck to paycheck. He worked in a restaurant, where they have no control over their hours. Those four days of lost work started that domino effect. He couldn’t pay his rent, his car, his utilities—from just losing four days of work.”
Ms. Tobon worked closely with her case management team to find Tim a long-term solution to ensure this would not happen again. Her team partnered with the local community college, helped him with his resume, and scouted jobs that would help support him so that he wouldn’t be so susceptible to income volatility.
“March 15, 2020 is when our entire world changed. That’s when COVID-19 hit. You can only imagine how many people were in the same situation as Tim, but they were out of work for four
days, six weeks, three months, six months. All of the sudden we had families coming in that used to have three months of savings and had lost it all, and were also about to lose their homes.”
During COVID-19, St. Vincent’s House saw over 46,000 duplicated people through their doors. Currently, they are 60% busier than last year in their social services side and clinics, finishing out this fiscal year with over 70,000 duplicated individuals coming through their doors. Keep in mind, Galveston Island’s population is a mere 50,000.
Ms. Tobon’s goal is to solve the housing crisis in Galveston. She believes, through collaboration, teamwork, and determination, this can be done within the next five years.
“I have this saying, that you can’t be well if you don’t have food or shelter, and that’s the most basic of hierarchy needs. If you don’t have food or shelter, you can’t be well. You need those basics. My goal, and it has already started, is to really pull those pieces together as a fully integrated, holistic model for wrap around services.”
The St. Vincent’s House team pushes themselves each day to look at what they do in accordance to their mission. Ms. Tobon truly works in every stage within the organization, from her boots on the ground in the food pantry to consulting with navigators and case management, reporting to funders, keeping relationships with fellow organizations, and managing the organization as a whole. Her passion for the work and compassion for others is what keeps her and her team going, even during difficult situations.
“We get a lot of prayers. We pray together. It’s the good stuff. We have days where we gather and hug each other and cry, because of the level of complexity that we deal with in our clients. It’s amazing, the strength some of these people have to carry on.”
Her boots on the ground approach is not just Ms. Tobon’s way of staying in touch with the needs of her clients, but is also helping the organization learn and grow. She recalls a recovery popup event St. Vincent’s House hosted after winter storm Yuri struck Texas.
“We wanted the event to focus on recovery—that’s where we are trying to grow. So, not just giving people things, but recovery and solutions that will last. It was cold out, and there were families with little kids that were there, who were completely barefoot. And we were so worried about getting those babies covered in clothing and socks, that I didn’t get the family’s information. That’s haunted me. We could’ve offered them our services to help them long-term. How could we let that baby go without bringing them back to St. Vincent’s House for more help? I swore that would not happen again.”
The recovery event was the definition of collaboration, with over 1,500 meals served, in four hours they saw about 3,000 people, with 72% being Hispanic, young families who had lose everything.
“We had Catholic charities, Red Cross, and community helpers. It was amazing.”
When asked to give advice on how other organizations could thrive in helping their communities, Ms. Tobon insists on first doing your homework to truly understand the community’s needs. She reaffirms that there’s no need to re-create the wheel, and that no organization can be all for everyone.
“For me, it’s always, how can we collaborate more? Get to know what organizations already exist. Build bridges and relationships, because you don’t have to do it on your own. There are lots of people that will support you. Two, look at the numbers. I’m lucky that with my previous positions, I’ve learned the financial side, the operations, the law statements.”
Ms. Tobon smiles and agrees that most importantly, you have to have a heart for the mission and the people you serve.
“It’s about resiliency, it’s about dignity. It’s about helping somebody cross the bridge of crisis and get better on the other side. Because we truly believe that nobody wants to be here. Nobody wants to be coming to us, asking for help because they’re in crisis. Our goal is to help them cross that bridge and give them the resources they need so that they don’t have to come back or be in crisis ever again.”