As the official move of Blue Shield of California’s headquarters to downtown Oakland grows closer, the company’s high energy, employee volunteer events are reaching residents across the four corners of the city.
“The company has a long history of giving back to communities across California most especially as part of the annual “May Month of Giving and Service,” a dedicated month to actively promote volunteerism and community engagement companywide. To provide support to the Oakland community, Blue Shield employee volunteers participated in a number of events in May including a massive health education event for 950 elementary kids in Estuary Park, as well as in-school visits to promote reading, playground renovations, and a bike and teddy bear building workshop.
“The great thing about our work in Oakland is that we are starting with elementary-school students to teach them about healthy habits now, so that they can live a long, healthy life,” said Jeff Robertson, senior vice president of marketing. “Oakland is already a mosaic community, and the schools we adopted serve communities of color. We have an opportunity to help shape the future of Oakland where there are fewer adults affected by chronic illnesses like diabetes, hypertension, or heart disease. I can’t think of a better win-win situation between our two goals of working to achieve our mission and engaging employees in the communities we serve.”
Blue Shield moves to Oakland this fall from San Francisco, where it was founded in 1939. This year the tax-paying, nonprofit health plan is celebrating its 80th anniversary. It’s campaign to introduce itself to Oakland is called #80ForOakland, with employees setting a target of 80 engagements with Oakland residents leading up to the move.
The company also pays for three volunteer days of service for its employees, as well as matching funds for charitable giving. This year Blue Shield set a goal of 80 percent employee participation rate, up from 50 percent last year.
“Blue Shield of California isn’t like most companies,” Robertson said. “We are a nonprofit, mission-driven company dedicated to providing affordable health care to all. We have a 2 percent net income cap, which means any profit above that 2 percent goes back to the communities we serve,” he said.
That also means Blue Shield hires and attracts mission-driven talent. “So it’s very fitting that for our 80th anniversary, we can set and will achieve our goal of having 80 percent employee engagement in our citizenship programs,” he said.
Two of those employees are Tony Hsieh, Blue Shield’s middleware infrastructure engineering manager, and JR Reyes, Blue Shield’s premier accounts underwriter, who headed up the Franklin School read-in as co-leads of the San Francisco Chapter of APEN, the Asian Pacific Employee Network. “The read-in was in honor of Asian Pacific Heritage Month, and Franklin Elementary is the ideal school, because of the large number of students from immigrant and refugees families [who come from Asia and the Pacific]. It’s an opportunity for them to see themselves in the stories we read to them,” said Reyes. He chose Cora Cooks Pancit by Dorina K. Lazo.
More than 30 Blue Shield employees helped read books and facilitate the event. “The school librarian created a list of books that represented a wide range of cultures, including Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Hawaiian, and Vietnamese,” said Hsieh. “We were able to buy these books and donate them to the school library.” Hsieh and Reyes agreed that Blue Shield’s move to Oakland will engage employees on an ongoing basis with the Oakland Unified School District. “We feel we can be part of the city’s revitalization,” said Hsieh.
Antoinette Mayer, Blue Shield’s senior director of corporate citizenship, noted that the company has every expectation of meeting its ambitious 80 percent engagement goal and pointed to the “Make Time for Health” Festival as another excellent example. “More than 950 students attended, and we had nearly 300 employees serve as festival volunteers in roles such as docents to guide students through booths and reinforce the learning aspects of the festival,” she said.
Developed in partnership with the American Heart Association, the “Make Time for Health” program encourages Oakland elementary students to focus on four pillars: a tobacco-free lifestyle, increased physical activity, emotional and social well-being, and balanced nutrition. This year’s event was part of a three-year initiative to help thousands of Oakland students focus on improving their health.
“We’re looking to continue to make a meaningful impact on the wellbeing of the Oakland community,” said Mayer, “and we would love to hear from Oakland-based nonprofits who would like to partner with us.”
Robertson helped staff a booth at the festival. “I was lucky enough to be assigned to the tobacco prevention booth, where kids had a chance to touch a pig’s lung that was exposed to nicotine. I wish I could bottle up their enthusiasm for learning and their excitement from that day,” he said. He emphasized that more than 80 percent of overall health is determined outside of a medical setting, which is why community knowledge and participation is so important.
Blue Shield has multiple #80ForOakland events upcoming. In July, the company will sponsor and volunteer for the Camp Olympics during the Oakland Town Camp Health and Wellness Week and build a new KaBoom! playground for students at the Yu Ming Charter School.