El Rio Foundation Marks Two Decades in HealthCare

Launches New Fundraising Program

By Valerie Vinyard

El Rio Health is a one-stop shop when it comes to healthcare. 

Doctors and providers practice in the same building where patients can get lab work, pick up a prescription at the pharmacy, meet with a nutritionist or even go to a dentist.

The community consumer-based health system started in 1970 and has grown from one site on the west side to a dozen locations, serving one in 10 in Tucson. 

To support patients with no health insurance, expand services and innovate, donations are essential, which makes the El Rio Foundation a critical aspect of the overall operation, raising $1.5 million to $2 million annually for the health center. A “Share Your Heart” employee giving campaign raises over $200,000 annually.

The foundation is celebrating its 20th anniversary and is one of the oldest community health center foundations in the country. An impressive 96 cents of every dollar donated goes to healthcare services for patients in need, capital projects and quasi-endowment. Individuals who donate to El Rio Foundation and file taxes in Arizona, may receive up to $400 in a state tax credit per person or $800 per couple.

The El Rio Foundation was formed in 2001 to increase financial support and awareness for the health center. Brenda Goldsmith, the foundation’s executive director, said El Rio stands out as one of the few among 1,300-plus health centers nationwide that have started fundraising efforts.

Kate Breck Calhoun, director of sales and marketing at Tucson Convention Center, serves as the immediate past board president of the El Rio Foundation. 

“My passion is healthcare,” said Calhoun, who was drawn to the cause after taking a tour of the Congress Street clinic.

As part of its efforts to raise money, the foundation will launch the El Rio 1000+ Club in 2022. Its goal is to increase from 142 individuals who donate $1,000 or more annually to more than 1,000 gifting that much. That will impact more than 100,000 people at El Rio Health. People also can become part of the club through a monthly donation.

The ambitious goal will focus on such areas as the cancer treatment fund, youth mental health and children’s services. 

El Rio CEO Nancy Johnson said the impact of contributions and volunteerism over the past 20 years has been amazing. Donors have given more than $30 million since El Rio Foundation’s inception, with most donations coming from our local community.

“As El Rio CEO, I see daily how charitable support impacts our most vulnerable patients and employees, whether it’s access to dental care, cancer screening and treatment, behavioral health care, employee scholarships, or building and equipping our new health centers,” Johnson said. 

The foundation is comprised of a compact team of five employees, including Goldsmith, who has been with El Rio for 17 years. 

Because medical care is expensive, Goldsmith’s team works to attract donors from corporations, foundations and the community.

“Their gifts ensure that all people can get care,” said Goldsmith, adding that more than 13,000 people served by the health center don’t have insurance and rely on El Rio’s services.

“Now the community is starting to understand our commitment to public health,” said Goldsmith, noting that the foundation is starting to receive estate gifts from Tucsonans who remember the foundation in their wills.

Goldsmith and Calhoun are particularly proud of the other board members and El Rio Vecinos, “neighbors” in Spanish, which started in 2013. 

The El Rio Vecinos is a group of young professional volunteers between the ages of 25 and 40 who raise money to help children receive healthcare through an annual fundraiser known as the Vecinos Block Party. 

In January, Calhoun will be replaced by Anthony Schaefer, a Realtor with Long Realty Company.

“As an El Rio Foundation board member, I have the privilege to see the incredible impact our fundraising efforts have on patients in need through innovative programs and expanded health services,” Schaefer said. 

Nowadays, the foundation also is fundraising for cancer treatment. Goldsmith said that between 12 and 20 patients are helped every year. She also lauded the many health partners, who “are stepping up to discount costs.”

“There’s a lot of care that can be done in the primary health setting that don’t need to be in the ER,” she said.

Especially in these difficult times, El Rio can be an option for anyone, insured or not.

“It could be your neighbor, it could be you,” Calhoun said.

Photo: From left – Brenda Goldsmith, Executive Director, El Rio Foundation; Anthony Schaefer, President, Board of Directors, El Rio Foundation; Kate Breck Calhoun, Immediate Past-President Board of Directors, El Rio Foundation. Photo by Brent G. Mathis

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