This month a new series begins in our News Center called People of Promise. Periodically, we’ll profile a Blue Shield of California Promise Health Plan employee who embodies the vision, passion, and commitment that help us achieve our mission to ensure all Californians have access to high-quality health care at an affordable price.
When Erica Ayala and her three siblings were growing up, her parents labored in the agricultural fields of Stanislaus County, helping to provide a wealth of nutritious vegetables and fruits to markets throughout California and the nation. But as newly arrived immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador, they couldn’t provide the wealth of knowledge needed to help their children connect to the academic and life skills they’d need to succeed in America.
“I was lucky. We had a strong, loving family and my parents were smart about taking advantage of community resources to give us opportunities to learn and advance, despite our modest economic circumstances,” says Ayala, a community engagement manager for Blue Shield of California Promise Health Plan in San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties.
“As children, we were enrolled in a free local literacy program. Someone delivered books to our home so we could learn to read and to understand the importance of getting a good education. Throughout my school years, I learned from teachers and mentors how to set goals, advocate for myself, and ask for help when I needed it. That made a huge difference in how I navigated my life.” Medi-Cal (the state’s Medicaid program) health coverage the family qualified for also made a difference to their lives. “We had access to a medical safety net, and as I grew up I realized how important that was,” Ayala adds.
Today, Ayala, who has two bachelor’s degrees from California State University, Stanislaus and a graduate degree from St. Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., is paying that experience forward. She is creating opportunities for the next generation of leaders in dozens of communities through her professional and volunteer roles.
In her position at Blue Shield Promise, Ayala is working to expand the health plan’s footprint in both counties through innovative program collaborations, events, and sponsorships with nonprofit groups, community-based organizations, civic leaders, and municipalities. In addition to her day job, Ayala is the founder and executive director of Invest in Me, an eight-year-old nonprofit volunteer group that provides self-development, growth, mental health resilience, and leadership opportunities for 6th to 12th grade students. In 2021, Invest in Me was named Nonprofit Group of the Year from Love Stanislaus County.
“I’m passionate about health equity issues, elevating the people of the Central Valley, and helping young people develop mental health, leadership and navigational skills,” she explains.
“My job as a community engagement manager is perfect for me,” says Ayala. “I grew up here, I know these counties and the people, and I understand the connections and support systems available to help those who feel marginalized and disconnected plug into resources that will help them create positive futures for themselves.”
Ayala believes good health is the foundation for everything. “If you have good physical and mental health, you are more likely to do well in school, be successful in a job and career, have strong relationships, and live a satisfying life,” she says. Among the health-oriented community initiatives that Ayala has initiated in are convening community panels of health, legal, political, and social service experts around key issues such as youth homelessness in San Joaquin and youth mental health in Stanislaus County, demonstrating the ability of art to create community health resilience and neighborhood beauty by sponsoring two large mural projects (one in each county,) and supporting the work of local nonprofits through projects such as holiday food/toy drives and library book donations.
Ayala’s style is to lead by example, and her contributions to the counties she serves have not gone unnoticed. She was named to the lists of Outstanding Women of Stanislaus County in 2021, Woman of the Year in 2018 by the California State Legislature, and the Modesto Bee’s “20 Under 40 Leaders” in 2017.