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Helping Hands: UC San Diego Center for Community Health Leadership Honored for Health Equity Work

Blanca Meléndrez and Amina Sheik Mohamed of the UC San Diego Center for Community Health received the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award for their efforts to address health equity in partnership with underserved, immigrant and refugee communities.

Blanca Meléndrez at left, with Amina Sheik Mohamed at right.
Blanca Meléndrez (left) serves as executive director of the UC San Diego Center for Community Health and Amina Sheik Mohamed (right) is director and founder of the center’s Refugee Health Unit. The two were honored for their leadership by the James Irvine Foundation. Photo credit: Ed Kashi

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Two leaders within the University of California San Diego Altman Clinical and Translational Research Institute (ACTRI) Center for Community Health (CCH) were honored this week for their dedication and work fostering healthy communities where everyone has an equitable opportunity to thrive. Blanca Meléndrez and Amina Sheik Mohamed were recognized with the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award for their efforts in partnering with underserved communities, researchers, multi-sector stakeholders and funders across San Diego and the State of California to co-create community-centered initiatives in support of underserved, refugee and immigrant communities.

Each year, the James Irvine Foundation Leadership Awards recognize innovative leaders whose work benefits the people of California. The awards spotlight exemplary leaders and their work to advance solutions that merit expansion, replication or policy support. In recognition of this honor, the Center for Community Health will receive a grant of $350,000 from the James Irvine Foundation to continue to support and expand CCH’s work.

For more than 20 years, CCH has been regarded as a trailblazer in health equity, partnering directly with refugee populations and communities of color to address the social determinants of health through public health practice, capacity building, education and translational research.

Meléndrez serves as executive director of CCH and Sheik Mohamed is director and founder of the center’s Refugee Health Unit (RHU). The CCH-RHU was launched in 2017 and administers multiple initiatives aimed at promoting the well-being of refugee families, including facilitating the San Diego Refugee Communities Coalition (SDRCC) which brings together over a dozen refugee-led ethnic community-based organizations (ECBOs) to collaborate on programming and funding opportunities.

“Our work is grounded in the belief that communities possess the inherent power to transform their health outcomes. Recognizing this, we dedicate ourselves to providing underserved communities with the resources and research support needed for them to lead the way toward health equity, bridging the gap between knowledge and action” said Meléndrez. “San Diego County is one of the largest refugee resettlement areas in the United States. Our immigrant and refugee population is from over 100 different countries, speaking 70 different languages, and many in these communities face systemic barriers that limit access to essential services and resources including nutrition security, education and health care.”

The Center for Community Health administers a range of programs and research initiatives focused on nutrition security, food justice, health literacy, child and family wellness, and youth leadership, and serves as a backbone organization for multiple collective impact coalitions across the region and state with a goal of building capacity and health-equity partnerships to ensure underserved communities have the health and social services they need.

Integral to this work, CCH trains and engages with community-based organizations, community health workers, behavioral health specialists, housing navigators and youth leaders in support of front-line health services delivery. CCH’s work has included collaborations with the USDA, the California Department of Social Services, and the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency to research and pilot nutrition incentive programs such as ¡Más Fresco! More Fresh in partnership with the UC San Diego Department of Pediatrics. Together with CCH’s network of food security programs, ¡Más Fresco! More Fresh currently allocates over $1 million per month for culturally appropriate, nutritious food to over 30,000 households who are food insecure.

Blanca Melendrez (left) and Amina Sheik Mohamed (right) with Don Howard CEO for the James Irvine Foundation
Blanca Meléndrez (left) and Amina Sheik Mohamed (right) with Don Howard, CEO of the James Irvine Foundation, at the leadership award ceremony on Feb. 12, 2024. Photo credit: Chase Daley

CCH has also facilitated a number of community-engaged research studies in partnership with local community-based organizations and health centers, including the HEALthy 4 You study funded through the California Governor’s Office of Research and Planning on the impact of adverse childhood experiences on obesity amongst Latino/a children in San Diego. The study is in partnership with the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative, UC San Diego Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science and Family Health Centers of San Diego, among other partners.

Community-Led Transformation

At the Center for Community Health, researchers have designed a signature Community-Led Transformation Model to address social determinants of health via community-centered research and practice. The goal is to uplift community leadership and solutions by working directly with local community groups and residents to support capacity building and community-engaged initiatives amongst those most affected by systemic disparities.

"We are grateful for the support of local and state foundations in funding this work," said Sheik Mohamed. "The RHU has brought together leaders from ethnic community-based organizations, united by a shared goal. We are an integral part of the community we serve, actively listening to its needs. Our model is collaboratively crafted with the community to effectively address and respond to those needs."

One aspect of CCH’s work includes facilitating a model for shared funding, so leaders helping the same communities are not competing for the same grants.

“The Center for Community Health provides wrap-around services for San Diegans experiencing challenging hardships in life, including our newcomers, whether it be immigrants, refugees and/or asylum seekers,” said Nick Macchione, chief health officer of UC San Diego Health. “What makes the center unique is that it is a community-based organization embedded within a university whose purpose and passion is taking leading-edge knowledge and turning it into meaningful action to help San Diegans live well.”

Ameneh Hosseyini, a refugee from Afghanistan, is just one of the many people who have benefited from the work of the Center for Community Health. For the first four to five months of her pregnancy, Hosseyini did not have a doctor. She felt lost.

“In the beginning, I felt isolated from society and so far away from my family,” said Hosseyini. “I could not communicate, and I could not read.”

CCH programs were able to help Hosseyini get an appointment with a doctor to begin her prenatal care, which continued through to the birth of her child.

Moving forward, the Center for Community Health is actively working to expand its model beyond San Diego to universities and institutions throughout the State of California, with a goal of sharing best practices and building capacity in support of community-centered approaches to translational research and programming.

Building on successes in the San Diego region, the CCH’s Refugee Health Unit recently received funding from the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) using federal resources from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to replicate the San Diego Refugee Communities Coalition model across the state through the Afghan Refugee School Impact (ARSI) and Afghan Youth Mentoring (AYM) programs. The CCH-RHU currently oversees statewide implementation of ARSI/AYM, engaging and supporting ECBOs across California to provide culturally responsive academic and social support services to newly arrived youth and families from Afghanistan.

According to Meléndrez and Sheik Mohamed, the funding from the James Irvine Foundation will help support efforts to expand CCH’s work advancing healthy communities where everyone has equitable opportunity to thrive.

About the James Irvine Foundation

The James Irvine Foundation is a private, nonprofit grantmaking foundation dedicated to expanding opportunities for the people of California. Since 1937, Irvine has provided more than $2.4 billion in grants to organizations throughout California. Irvine ended 2022 with $3.2 billion in assets and provided $187.3 million in grants focused on creating a California where all low-income workers have the power to advance economically. Irvine pursues that through multiyear initiatives — for and informed by workers and the leaders who serve them — focused on pathwayspower and protectionsplace, and partnerships. For more, please visit

"Our work is grounded in the belief that communities possess the inherent power to transform their health outcomes." 
Blanca Meléndrez, executive director of the Center for Community Health

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