A Volunteer’s Impact on Policy

San Francisco—You could look at Cora Tomalinas, a delicately aging woman strolling to the stage in a winged white dress to accept The California Wellness Foundation’s Peace Prize last month, and see her as something of an angel.

You could look at her record in youth work, composed of volunteer jobs and board memberships, and think she’s one of the do-gooders who fight in the trenches every day.

You’d be missing the bigger picture.

Tomalinas: “There was always a part of me that wanted to reach out.” Photo: California Wellness Foundation

Sweetness and sweat are big parts of Tomalinas’ makeup as a person and a youth worker. But it is her sharp tongue and politically savvy mind that make her one of Santa Clara County’s most important figures in youth development. She is credited as a key factor in the county’s evolution from a gang-entrenched area into one of America’s safest metropolises.

“She has a magical way of bringing people together and saying, ‘Go for it,’ ” says Jolene Smith, executive director of First 5 Santa Clara County, a state-funded nonprofit that serves young children. “With her it is always: How is what we’re doing going to benefit the community, and how do we bring everyone to the table?”

It’s impossible to measure one citizen’s impact on community change. But consider two major developments since the former nurse began a second career as a full-time volunteer:

• San Jose went from a gang-plagued city to an annual contender for the “Safest Metro Area” designation by Morgan Quitno Press, a Kansas-based publishing and research company that produces crime rankings. (The city won safest city with more than 500,000 people six straight times before falling to second place this year.) Tomalinas was critical in the formation of a task force that oversaw increased gang outreach and prevention and was almost solely responsible for pushing the financial commitment to the task force from $3.5 million to $4.5 million last year.

• The Santa Clara County Children’s Health Initiative (CHI) began in 2001 with the goal of insuring all youth in families with incomes below 300 percent of the federal poverty level. In the first year, 62,000 children were enrolled and at least 13,500 of the enrollments were directly attributable to CHI, according to an evaluation by Mathematica.

It was Tomalinas, Smith says, who brought health-care stakeholders to the table to negotiate the initiative. When the funding wasn’t enough to cover all the targeted children, Smith says, Tomalinas used her sway as First 5 commission chairman to have part of the organization’s funding allocated to cover all of the county’s eligible 1- to 5-year-old children.

Career Change

Tomalinas, 63, was born in the Philippines, immigrated to California in 1961, and became a nurse in 1968. She met Robert Tomalinas three years later, and began what friends describe as a passionate marriage that lasted until Robert died seven years ago.

Tomalinas worked as a registered nurse in critical care units until retiring in 2005. It was a rewarding profession that nevertheless left her searching for more.

“It was hard for me to take care of someone and not be their friend,” Tomalinas says. “There was always a part of me that wanted to reach out.”

Motivation merged with mission in 1987, when Tomalinas’ daughter, Maria, fell in with a bad crowd as a high school freshman and got into drugs and alcohol. The family sold its house to pay for Maria’s month-long stay at a rehabilitation facility.

Relieved by her daughter’s turnaround, Tomalinas saw that many San Jose parents did not have the means to pull their kids out of such dangerous situations. In 1988 she joined People Acting in Community Together (PACT), a San Jose coalition that trains people to be community activists.

Through PACT, she has served as the driving force behind the children’s health and anti-gang initiatives while sewing herself into the fabric of her community. Her success as an activist stems from both that drive and her community connections.

Compassion and Force

When Tomalinas talks about the needs of people in the community, she speaks from first-hand experience. Local adults and youth trust her to mediate personal conflicts – like her recent sit-down with a father and his son, who had been suspended from school and was on the verge of dropping out.

Tomalinas describes a scene that many youth workers would recognize: The father ranted about how he didn’t know his son anymore, that the boy was ungrateful, even though “I bought him a Mercedes!”

The boy looked at Tomalinas and said: “Auntie, can I tell him now?” She nodded. The boy asked his dad, “When was the last time you told me you love me?” The two were soon in tears, and Tomalinas helped them begin to work out their differences.

It’s a schmaltzy story, but such community connections boost Tomalinas’ sway when she pushes policymakers.

“She’s relentless,” says former San Jose Mayor Susan Hammer, under whom the gang task force was convened for the first time. Hammer was running for mayor when Tomalinas and PACT were pushing the city to address its budding gang problem.

“We went through some pretty difficult times with her and her cohorts when I first started,” Hammer recalls. “She is hard to say no to.”

Veterans at City Hall and at the police department know the smart move is to appease Tomalinas when possible because, as she says, “If they don’t, they know I can get 2,000 people to one city meeting if I need to.”

Hyperbole? “Oh, she can … with one phone call” says First 5’s Smith. (Tomalinas chairs the organization’s board.) “And those people are all in the community. And they all vote.”

It rarely comes to a standoff, because Tomalinas has a gift for pushing things incrementally, says Esther Mota, community services supervisor at the city’s Department of Recreation, Parks and Neighborhood Services.

“What I like about Cora is she knows how to work the systems, but she’s not a brown-noser,” says Mota, who works with Tomalinas on the mayor’s gang task force and gets teary describing the impact that her colleague has made. “She doesn’t ask for the sky. She usually doesn’t go asking for lots of money.”

Speaking of money, she has never asked for any pay as a youth worker. Tomalinas sits on a number of high-profile boards in Santa Clara County, including First 5, the Catholic Foundation of Santa Clara County, the San Jose Education Foundation and the Filipino Task Force for Domestic Violence Prevention. Yet she has never been a staff member anywhere since her days as a nurse.

“I see that as a strength,” Smith says. “She just can go from place to place, and just ask questions. She sees it at the 20,000-foot level. She sees how we all fit.”

Contact: PACT (408) 998-8001,

For more on The California Wellness Foundation’s Peace Prize, see Awards for December 2007 – January 2008.


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