Mary Donnelly Crocker

Young and Healthy's director Mary Donnelly Crocker at their new office.

Young and Healthy’s director Mary Donnelly Crocker fights for health care for kids in our community.


defender of youth, health care expert, visionary leader, crisis counselor, mom x 3 + 1

MDC as she is known by many in the community has been at the helm of Y&H for nearly 26 years and is thrilled about the opportunity to open up a new office which will allow the organization to better serve the community.  These types of fresh, positive challenges motivate her to stay excited about the work after all these years.  And, of course, who wouldn’t want to help provide quality health care for children who are un- or under-insured?

Below you will find her thoughts about issues ranging from nonprofits in our city to health care to leadership from a recent interview I had with her:

Normally as an elementary school student one isn’t thinking about growing up one day to be executive director of a youth serving health care organization, so how did you end up at Young and Healthy?

When I was a kid, my catholic school always had these visiting missionary nuns come and talk to us. They were doing work with the poor in Peru—so strange I can still even remember the town they worked in. These nuns were pretty adventurous and pretty mesmerizing for a kid in a plaid skirt. As a kid—I wanted to be a missionary—-but not the preachy-kind—the cool nun kind who dug latrines and taught kids how to read. Maybe I got my wish (not the latrine digging part—never dreamt about that)—I just stayed at home to do it…..and I never even been to Peru.

I think my dad was a big influence too—he was a staunch catholic and although our theology differed quite a bit—he actually acted on what were called the “Corporal Works of Mercy”… he consisted modeled these things in a thousand little ways:

To feed the hungry.
To give drink to the thirsty.
To clothe the naked.
To shelter the homeless.
To visit the sick.
To visit the imprisoned.
To bury the dead.

But— my career started off teaching preschoolers and the doing some of the hardest work on the planet. I was a Certified Child Life Specialist at Huntington Hospital for about ten years. It was there that I really learned about kids and health care. I was on the psycho-social team there and helped kids and families cope with everything from a simple set of stitches to death. I never knew what my day would be—but I did feel very ALIVE working with families at the worst possible moment of their lives. It was exhausting, exciting, heartbreaking , thrilling and fun –all at the same time. It turned out that I got “pretty good” at dealing with death and dying…..but that also takes its toll.

Just when I could feel the burn out coming on at the Hospital—Young & Healthy was being birthed. At the first interview—I wasn’t even nervous—I was just checking it out, after all. When I was asked back for a second interview—I was a wreck—because then…I REALLY, REALLY wanted the job…Here I am 26 years later.

What is the state of nonprofits in our community today?

Nonprofit work is not for sissies. This is hard work that often, to the outside world looks on as an EASY or a FLUFF job. I have never worked so hard.☺ I think nonprofits are always precarious…and the “halo effect” that nonprofits once had—is long gone. Nonprofits are scrutinized, and evaluated in some similar ways to the for-profit world—but we will never have the same kind of resources available to us as they do.

Recently there has been a spate of closures or reductions in scope and staff due to funding issues. Are those due to an overall downturn in the economy, or do we just have too many nonprofits in this city?

That’s a really tough question—each one of those closures had a secret backstory that no one outside the staff or board really knew.  It could have been a simple lack of competent leadership, or a board that couldn’t muster their fund-raising selves, a change in a major funding source—or just bad luck.

During the worst of the recession some nonprofits folded, some made cuts so they would close and some held on to their old ways but couldn’t survive even when the economy improved.

Pasadena DOES have a lot of nonprofits—too many? Who knows—it is such a subjective question I am not sure any amount of research could answer that.

Obviously fundraising is a primary task of any executive director, what have you done to make that job fun and effective?

You may have noticed—I am a little goofy and kinda homespun.  I am happy that I have found a place that appreciates some of the ways I do things (at least I think they do—ha). So baking bread for a donor I know loves banana bread—or taking cookies to another—all make sense to me in how I steward donors.  I am pretty comfortable in my own skin, at this point of my life and it feels natural and easy to relate to donors in personal ways….I try really hard to connect—and find out what is important to them—not just what is important to Young & Healthy.  

So while I always talk about Y&H in my conversations with donors—I might also talk about the sierras, dogs, grandkids, their latest surgery. Getting to know people makes it fun and interesting for me.

Raising money is something I feel like I am ALWAYS, ALWAYS trying to better…I read a lot—got to workshops…try out new techniques…I never take fundraising for granted—it is hard and fragile at the same time—needs constant attention.

In nonprofits leadership is important for stability, name recognition, maintaining clear vision, so is there a formula or template for both recognizing when leadership should be changed and for how that process should be accomplished?

Why do you ask such tough questions my friend?

When leadership is changed is really a function of the board—but I think as long as the nonprofit leader keeps it fresh—new ideas, energy , mission keeping…moving the organization in the direction agreed upon by the board and staff—then it’s all good…it could be 5 years or 30 years—so individual.

I actually have done quite a bit of research on succession planning—Y&H has a game plan for which covers both the “hit by a bus” scenario and a planned retirement.

I think one of the most difficult questions is how can E.D. avoid burn out—that could seriously affect their ability to successfully lead.

Should health care be considered a right in this country? If so what would that look like? If not what structure of health care coverage would enable our society to be as healthy as possible?

Probably not a surprise—I am a big fan of health care for everyone—maybe that is a right. While the ACA is far from perfect—I think it has many elements of making it health care MORE accessible to all. BUT—having health insurance does not guarantee that you can actually see a doctor—but it does help. It a perfect world—accessing health care would be far easier for people to understand—lack of understanding is one of the biggest barriers to care.

How has the Affordable Care Act impacted the work of Young and Healthy? How have you adapted to the changing landscape in medical insurance coverage?

The ACA is a game changer—however it does not change our basic mission—we want people to have ACCESS to care….the new programs available thru the ACA is one more tool that people have —for a better chance of accessing care.

That said—it has changed our day to day work. We still do what we have always done—link low-income , underserved kids with volunteer doctors…but in addition, we are now assessing every single child and family to see if there is a fit for insurance…if there is—we facilitate their enrollment.

This meant that our staff and board had to decide to make this shift, look for money, become certified, partner with other agencies, enroll, trouble shoot, evaluate and then start all over the next year.

Understanding the ACA…and understanding it in a way that I can teach it to others—has been one of the hardest things I have ever done. Luckily, we have other staff who know it COLD—and can teach anyone from an attorney to an non-English speaker who cannot read in any language—what the ACA means to their daily life. The first year of the ACA was downright nuts—but now—it is calmer and easier.

Please explain how you have managed to convince over 100 local physicians, dentists and other medical care professionals to donate their services? What inspires them to give back in this way?

We actually have 350 professional volunteers and over 213 community volunteers—cool huh?

I don’t think it is all that hard—you just have to tell the story well—there are vulnerable kids right under our noses—and YOU can help. Most people cannot turn away from a sick or hurt child—we just need to make it easy for them to say yes.  Y&H simply puts a structure around caring and action. One doctor says, we took the “hassle factor” away from volunteering. We try and make it easy for doctors to say yes.

We also go out of our way—BIG TIME—to make sure our volunteers feel appreciated. Personal calls from the staff are the norm—adorable written thank you notes from the kids and special recognition at Thanksgiving and during national volunteer week are all steps we take to demonstrate our gratitude.

But REALLY, REALLY—I think the doctors say yes to kids because they are genuinely good & caring people—we are just able to capture it.

How does collaboration factor into your work? Obviously you wouldn’t be able to serve your constituents without the support of doctors, but who else are you collaborating with and what strategies do you use to keep those relationships healthy?

Again—I think in some was part of it is simple—I like people, find them smart and interesting and believe we can do more together than apart.  I think there is both more work than we will all ever get to and enough power to share. Sharing power is one of the hallmarks of great communication and collaboration…and when it works it REALLY works. I try to “play nice in the sandbox” by listening, sharing ideas, giving credit away.

At last count we collaborated with 58 different places in our community—but some of the institutional partners include: PUSD, PASADENA PUBLIC HEALTH, HMH, FULLER, PCC, churches, and lots of other NPO’s.

Of course people respond to people, so what is your secret to attracting talented and caring staff members and then keeping them for years on staff?

I like working with people who are smarter than me—I LOOK for those people. I try to appreciate them for what they bring to Y&H that I do not—maybe it is the ability to correctly forecast our financial situation or understand the thousands of rules of Medi-Cal. Each staff person and board member brings unique gifts to the organization. I feel it my job to help them discover their gifts—use them well and then NOTICE.

I hope that they know that I view them as individuals with hopes, dreams and challenges—some about work—and some outside of work. Everything is connected and whenever it is feasible, I hope I can offer support for both.

I hope that the staff thinks that I listen to them, and that I view mistakes as learning opportunities and that each of their contributions makes the organization whole.
Oh—and we try to have as much fun as possible along the way. If we are not laughing at lunch together—it’s a bad day.

What was one of your greatest challenges as an ED and how did you respond to it?

Hands down the most recent recession. The funding faucet turned off, almost overnight—we had to make incredibly difficult financial decisions. I went to dozens of “pop up” workshops on how to handle everything from finances to communication, to staffing.

Ultimately we cut our budget by one-third and laid off three really competent staff members.  Although I am aware it was awful for them—it was also the worst thing I have ever had to do. Although I intellectually understood we had to do it to survive—it was heartbreaking for me to know what pain I was delivering to three people who were great at their jobs.  I hated every moment.

Because Nice Matters!

Because Nice Matters!

What motivates you to stay in this position after over 20 years?

Need and change. Every time I hear about one of the families we have helped—and what they have endured in their private struggles with poverty—and then how we helped–I get reenergized….to know that we provide practical help , in the most nurturing ways and provide a tiny bit of hope—well, that’s hard to beat.

Y&H changes all the time—we bend, we flex, and we stretch to newly discovered community needs and gaps in service. And for me—that it a good thing—I can get bored when things are too easy—new challenges keep me awake and alert.

What do you love about the job?

That we can be creative in how we solve problems.

That we ASSUME that there is a solution.

That I kind of get to “travel” in many worlds in my own community. I have been in the living rooms of the poorest people in our community—seeing firsthand the horrid effects of poverty on families….AND I have been in the living rooms of some of the wealthiest of our community.  

My job allows me to make connections between those worlds—and affecting change and generosity. I get to see the worst and the best of our community—sometimes in the same moment…and that is pretty cool.