Newly elected Desert Healthcare District board member Carmina Zavala: “I’d like to see all residents have equal and easy access to health-care services here in the Coachella Valley, as well as equal and easy access to mental and behavioral health care services. That’s definitely one of my priorities."

Coachella Valley native Carmina Zavala was elected as the new Zone 3 director of the Desert Healthcare District (DHCD) board in November, getting more votes than opponents Kristal Granados and Shelley Kaplan combined. On Dec. 10, she assumed the seat, which had been held for 23 years by retiring board member Mark Matthews.

“I grew up here in the Coachella Valley, so I know how special and unique it is,” said Zavala, a Palm Desert resident and a doctoral candidate in applied clinical psychology, during a phone interview with the Independent. “Now, to be able to give back to the community, is such a treat and a blessing. I feel very lucky to be able to do that, especially in this position.”

During her campaign, Zavala emphasized that working to overcome the threat of COVID-19 needed to be the district board’s primary focus.

“The district’s first priority is the health and the wellness of the Coachella Valley’s 443,101 residents,” Zavala said. “The vaccination priorities are being set at the national and state level. But, that being said, the DHCD and the foundation are continuing their funding of the Coachella Valley Equity Collaborative, which is a multiple-agency partnership with Riverside County to improve access to COVID-19 testing and offer support services, (and) to get the vaccine to farmworkers and other vulnerable valley residents. The DHCD’s chief executive officer, Dr. (Conrado) Barzaga, has been a vocal proponent of prioritizing farmworkers as essential workers, and of their receiving the vaccines, in alignment with (efforts made by) Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia. I approve of, and agree with, what the DHCD has been doing so far in supporting efforts to address the pandemic.”

To date, those efforts on the part of the DHCD have been supported by $1.2 million in CARES Act funding, provided via Riverside County, to address local needs resulting from the pandemic. Through the DHCD’s traditional grant-making process, eight local nonprofits and agencies have received critical financial support: Alianza Coachella Valley, El Sol Neighborhood Educational Center, Galilee Center, Lideres Campesinas, Pueblo Unido, TODEC Legal Center, Vision y Compromiso and the Youth Leadership Institute. Along with Riverside County and the DHCD, these entities now make up the Coachella Valley Equity Collaborative.

Barzaga explained the mission of this new collaborative in a recent press statement, saying: “The most significant aspect of this funding is peer education, delivering scientific, accurate information about COVID-19, and also linking families to resources and testing.” Resources include food and rent assistance.

What other issues does Zavala view as priorities?

“I’d like to see all residents have equal and easy access to health-care services here in the Coachella Valley, as well as equal and easy access to mental and behavioral health care services,” Zavala said. “That’s definitely one of my priorities. Also, we still need to educate the community about COVID-19 and the vaccines, so I’d like to see more on that. And, I’ll certainly be working with other community leaders and local agencies, including the Coachella Valley Association of Governments and Riverside County, to address the challenges we face around the homelessness issue here in the Coachella Valley.”

“The DHCD’s chief executive officer, Dr. (Conrado) Barzaga, has been a vocal proponent of prioritizing farmworkers as essential workers, and of their receiving the vaccines.”

Carmina Zavala, new desert healthcare district board member

Zavala has been practicing at a Palm Springs outpatient clinic for individuals with mental-health issues. She said she believes her experience will prove beneficial to the DHCD board and valley residents alike.

“Back in 2019, the DHCD conducted a mental- and behavioral-needs assessment (of the residents in the valley),” she said. “The findings highlighted several gaps in the provision of mental health and behavioral services. Some of the policy recommendations (resulting from this assessment) related to a need for access to services such as education, and to reducing the negative stigma connected to mental health (conditions). Also, I’d like to see professional development and expansion of the mental-health-services workforce.”

As Zavala takes her seat on the board, one high-profile DHCD initiative is the effort to identify a regional third-party medical provider that can create a quality health-care facility and outreach program to serve the heavily Black population of Palm Springs’ under-served Desert Highland Gateway Estates neighborhood. The DHCD recently issued a request for proposals. As Barzaga said in press statement on this effort, “My hope is that this will be a community effort to equalize the Desert Highland Gateway Estates’ access to a number of resources. Access to health care is very important, but also the hope of our board is that the Black community will have access to better educational and employment opportunities. There will be an augmented visibility of their needs. The long term goal is there will be a clinic there.”

Zavala said the work in the Desert Highland Gateway Estates neighborhood shows that the DHCD is working on behalf of all Coachella Valley residents.

“I have faith that the DHCD will be working in this area to bring about positive results,” she said.

Zavala said she was thankful to the Zone 3 constituents—who live in portions of Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, Palm Desert and La Quinta—for voting her into office.

“And, truly, I’d like to thank those who didn’t vote for me as well, because I’m really here to serve everyone in the (entire) community,” Zavala said. “… My personal mission and goal is to be able to provide the best support to our community, and be there for them, do anything to help them, and be that voice for them.”

Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...