21 for ’21: Leslie Conner expects to begin seeing the fruits of her labor

Leslie Conner, CEO of Santa Cruz Community Health Centers, at Santa Cruz Women's Health Center in December 2020.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Leslie Conner, CEO of Santa Cruz Community Health Centers, can’t wait to break ground on a new 20,000-sq. ft. clinic in Santa Cruz County that will be connected to housing and other services. It will be her 10-year anniversary at the nonprofit.

This summer, in the middle of 2020 hellishness and heartbreak, Leslie Conner committed an act of hope.

She planted dahlias in her yard on the Westside of Santa Cruz.

It was her first attempt at raising the vibrant, broad-faced flowers from temperamental tubers. But as CEO of Santa Cruz Community Health Centers, Conner is an experienced seed-planter. She is all too familiar with the painstaking work that goes into making a fruitful garden.

“Maybe as I get older, too, I get more impatient to see the change that we’ve been trying to be all these years,” she said.

In 2021, it’ll be a decade since she took the helm of the Santa Cruz Women’s Health Center, which, along with East Cliff Family Health Center in Live Oak, makes up the not-for-profit organization. Conner and her team at the health clinics have spent many grueling years (2020 being perhaps the most trying) expanding services to be able to help Santa Cruz County residents from childhood through adulthood.

Conner, who holds a master’s degree in public health, sees in her patients how the struggles people face as adults can often be traced back to the earliest moments of their lives.

“We see people who don’t have homes. We see children that don’t have shoes, that don’t have enough to eat. We see people who are struggling in their 30s, 40s, 50s, who are dealing with the effects of childhood trauma, and they didn’t get the help they needed when they were babies, and toddlers, they didn’t get the healing that they needed,” she said.

Lookout's 21 for '21

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re profiling 21 individuals who made a difference in pandemic-and-wildfire-ravaged Santa Cruz County in 2020 — and how they’re looking toward recovery in 2021. Have suggestions about others we should pick? Email us at news@lookoutlocal.com

Her goal for the new year is to ramp up the community health centers’ work in pediatrics, to make sure vulnerable children have what they need, to protect them from harmful experiences that can scar them for life.

And then there’s the other extreme: patients who are older, unsheltered or on the brink of it, and constantly struggling under the weight of those early traumas. The health centers offer wraparound support services to some 1,700 patients experiencing homelessness and, often, other health issues.

And somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, there is a need Conner can’t wait to fill as the East Cliff clinic moves into new digs at a 3.5-acre health and housing hub that will break ground on in the first half of 2021. The project at the intersection of Capitola Rd and 17th Avenue in Live Oak is for now being called 1500 Capitola Rd.

A rendering of the project at 1500 Capitola Rd. in Live Oak.
(Via 1500capitolaroad.org)

It is the fruits of a partnership between Santa Cruz Community Health Centers, Dientes Community Dental Care, where Conner worked as development director for a time, and MidPen Housing.

Conner’s nonprofit will have a 20,000-sq. ft. primary care clinic with larger pediatrics and behavioral health programs, optometry and a pharmacy. Across a plaza from that, Dientes will have an 11-chair dental clinic to serve community health centers’ patients. In the back of the complex, MidPen Housing is developing 57 units of affordable housing.

“We’ve got more crises to come, and we need to build our communities in ways that absorb the shocks — and maybe even...

The mixed-use project, that includes $1 million of funding by Sutter Health, will be a tangible result after decades of dutiful seed watering by many. And the vision of what it will be satisfies Conner’s desire for huge progress — at least for now.

“I cannot wait. I have fantasies about that ribbon cutting,” Conner said of ceremony expected by summer of 2022. “It’s gonna be incredible.”

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