In the Salinas Valley, the “salad bowl of the world” with fields of lettuce spreading like shag carpet between the mountains of California’s Central Coast, the town of Gonzales may be small (population 8,479), but its residents take pride in what they call the “Gonzales Way.”


Gonzales Children on Playground
Young Voices Are Heard From left, Camilia Jimenez, 5, Julian Brandt, 9, and Steven Brandt, 11, enjoy the Canyon Creek Tot Lot. Before the city of Gonzales built the new $60,000 playground, the parks and recreation department narrowed the design choices to two and asked “experts” to pick the best one. At an elementary school, 4- and 5-year-olds voted by putting plastic coins in buckets representing the design of their preference. “Allowing kids to know that ... adults are listening to them and care about their feelings, wants, and needs goes a long way toward building a relationship with youth,” says Sara Papineau-Brandt, Gonzales’ recreation 


Residents describe the Gonzales Way as a genuine feeling that they can be a force for improving well-being in their community. It’s heralded on banners hanging from streetlights and matter-of-factly mentioned in conversation by people who have lived there all their lives or just moved to town.

“Their can-do attitude allows collaboration to happen and to be successful and effective,” says Carmen Gil, manager of health in all policies for the Monterey County Health Department.


Gonzales Pathway to Employment
Pathway to Employment  Lifeguard Deja McCrimmon (center) shows young trainees how to rescue a swimmer. The city-supported Junior Lifeguard Program at the community pool serves as a pipeline to employment for teenagers. They learn lifeguarding skills and help with swim lessons. When they are eligible to become lifeguards, their training puts them first in line for consideration for jobs, says Sara Papineau-Brandt, Gonzales’ recreation coordinator. The pool manager, she adds, rose up through the ranks, starting as a junior lifeguard before becoming a lifeguard, then senior guard, and now manager.


Gonzales reflects how a small community can tap the insight and power of its residents to create change and expand opportunities. City leaders have made intentional efforts to foster an inclusive environment, while leveraging resources and working together to encourage economic development, promote environmental sustainability, and create opportunities for youth. “We listen,” says City Manager René Mendez, “and we try to understand.”

With an abundance of sun and wind, the city is swiftly switching to alternative energy sources and, through the Gonzales Grows Green initiative, working with employers to reduce their carbon footprint. For decades, farmworkers, primarily from Mexico, have been drawn to this farming valley for jobs. Much of the land around town is planted end-to-end with varieties of lettuce, while the vineyards on the nearby Santa Lucia mountains produce some of the best pinot noir and chardonnay grapes in the country. 

Gonzales faces challenges, and high among them are the need to increase the availability of affordable housing, expand access to clinical care, and provide public transportation. But the community displays a willingness and commitment to be open to ideas and to partner with others. 


Gonzales Stem on the Farm
STEM on the Farm  Jerome Russell (left) and Pablo Mendoza-Contreras install a water monitor in a field outside Gonzales. The high school students are part of Wings of Knowledge, an initiative that allows young people to make real-life connections between the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills they learn in the classroom and the farm, where they collaborate with local farmers. Mendoza-Contreras is interested in agriculture and engineering and, through Wings of Knowledge, worked on turning a vacant greenhouse into a “smart farm.” “Our goal is to make a greenhouse that we can manage all the way from our school, all the way from a server,” he says. 


About 94 percent of the population of Gonzales is Latino, and more than a third of residents are under the age of 18. Young residents are seen as an asset and empowered to act on their ideas. Voters supported this focus on youth when they approved a half-cent sales tax in 2014 to pay for activities like after-school programs and summer camp; improvements in parks and recreational places; and summertime career training. The money also funds mini-grants of up to $5,000 that allow residents to suggest ideas and lead projects that will improve the town’s quality of life—small but important steps, such as upgrading a food pantry or adding new hydration stations for filling water bottles at schools. 

Mayor Maria Orozco has witnessed how Gonzales has changed in her 25 years as a resident and views the Culture of Health Prize as reinforcement that the city is on the right path. “Now residents are more engaged where they feel they have a seat at the table,” she says. 


Gonzales Water Station
From Idea to Reality Maria Jose Herrera (left) and Alexa Mendez fill their water bottles at a new hydration station at Fairview Middle School. The station was funded by a Community Action Grant. The grant program is supported through “Measure K,” revenue, a half-cent sales tax devoted to projects, programs, and infrastructure that benefit the community. Grant applicants can receive up to $5,000 to turn their ideas—everything from improving a food pantry to covering vision screenings by the Lions Club—into reality. A resident advisory committee reviews applications and City Council approves funding decisions. “Residents are more engaged when they feel they have a seat at the table,” says Mayor Maria Orozco.


(Text and video used courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, copyright 2019; Photos used courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, copyright 2019 Josh Kohanek.)

How do I's


Mayor Marie Orcozo

“Residents are more engaged when they feel they have a seat at the table.”

—Maria Orozco, Gonzales Mayor


Carmen Gil

“Their can-do attitude allows collaboration to happen and to be successful and effective."

—Carmen Gil, Monterey County Health Department