By Eric Ruble
Samuel Roberts lost his father to COVID-19 two weeks before vaccines became widely available in the spring of 2021. Since then, the USC Price Master of Public Policy student has worked to honor his dad’s legacy by creating an organization dedicated to increasing vaccinations and reducing health disparities in the Inland Empire. This month, the new nonprofit – dubbed San Bernardino for Rapid Recovery – began its at-home vaccination program.
Roberts started the organization alongside his friend Semi Cole. The two were undergraduate classmates at the University of California, Riverside. Roberts has focused on developing the program internally, while Cole worked on the external aspects, such as finding partnership organizations, government relations and strategic communications.
They chose the Inland Empire due to their formative years spent in the region. The two recognize the wide health disparities that exist in there; San Bernardino County ranks second in California for COVID-19 deaths, and its vaccination rate lags behind the state average by nearly 17% according to state and county data.
“There is a longstanding history of health inequities in the region,” Roberts said. “I was really motivated to ensure that other people were given the vaccines and the tools to not lose their loved ones due to this pandemic.”
A major breakthrough came in December 2021, when the pair earned a $240,000 grant from CORE LA – the same organization that ran a COVID-19 vaccination site at Dodger Stadium.
When Roberts and Cole first met with CORE, they were asked to develop a budget for the potential grant money. Coincidentally, Roberts was enrolled in “Foundations of Policy Analysis,” a Price class taught by Professor Grace Bahng. In the course, Roberts was creating cost-benefit analyses for his final project and says that what he learned allowed him to produce a strong proposal for CORE.
“That really helped me become familiar with this and gave me a lot of experience and knowledge and made this whole budgeting process that much easier,” he said.
While San Bernardino for Rapid Recovery’s initial focus is vaccinations, its founders eventually want to fulfill a broader mission of making health care more accessible.
“[We’re] really using this framework to start building a path to integrating it with health care in San Bernardino County to start providing residents with at-home medicine and health resources,” Roberts said.
One way they want to expand care beyond at-home appointments is through helping people with COVID-19 isolate. They hope to start a “hotel assistance fund,” which would allow people in dense living situations to leave home for five days if they are sick. Indeed, as Price Dean Dana Goldman indicated last year, the virus spreads easily in Southern California partially because of crowded housing environments.
“It’s hard to quarantine if you’re a family of five in a one-bedroom apartment,” said Cole, who works for the Center for the Advancement of Racial Equity at the University of California, Los Angeles.
To ensure San Bernardino for Rapid Recovery is successful, Roberts and Cole are focusing on recruiting young and local members. They recently hired two USC undergraduates as interns to work on social media and external relations. Additionally, the two have worked to build collegial partnerships with other universities, such as UCR and California State University, San Bernardino, developing cross-campus networks for youth-driven involvement.
“We really want to build a better San Bernardino County that is served by folks that are coming from the community,” Cole said.
Cole grew up in the Inland Empire and says part of the solution will be ensuring health care professionals are as diverse as their patients. “We’re trying to set up our region for health care leaders who are more diverse and representative of the community,” said Cole. “We want to see more Black and brown doctors.”
Roberts says attending UCR exposed him to the health care challenges Inland Empire residents face, especially when compared to those in nearby Los Angeles County. He pointed to diabetes and obesity as two major challenges facing the community.
“Learning about the different health disparities within the Inland Empire was definitely a major focus in my courses and that’s really what drew me to wanting to make a difference [there],” Roberts said.
The friends believe that while some municipalities have passed resolutions declaring racism a public health crisis, actions are far more important than words.
“Those symbolic resolutions are great – they’re inspiring. But how do we actually add tangible impact behind it?” Cole said. Roberts says one of the reasons he enrolled in Price is because he has always been interested in pursuing equitable policies. He hopes to one day run for state office – and he’ll always be proud that Price was a key stepping stone on the way to his ultimate goal.