UCLA Health's nurses meet the challenge of making healthier and better communities

‘I promised myself to always give back to the community and give someone else the opportunity of hope the way someone provided it to me,’ says Michelle Santizo, a nurse at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

UCLA Health’s commitment to serving the local community is consistently demonstrated through its programs that bring world-class health care to those who need it most. And its nurses are leading that charge. Through the hospital system’s Professional Development Council and Nursing’s Structural Empowerment Council, nurses are offered opportunities to volunteer in ways that are meaningful to them and to their communities.

“One of the things that sets UCLA apart is their commitment to helping the nurses experience some of that professional and personal growth that I haven’t seen elsewhere,” says Bob Bencangey, MSN, RN-BC.

At UCLA Health, nurses are encouraged to do big things. Here, we highlight Bencangey and a few of his colleagues who have risen to that challenge.

A friendly place to sit

Bencangey understands the feelings of loneliness and isolation kids can have when they don’t have a friend to play with. As part of his commitment to increase inclusion and decrease bullying in the community, Bencangey, a clinical nurse educator at Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA, has launched a Buddy Bench program at local elementary schools.

Bob Bencangey works with children to paint a Buddy Bench.

Bright and welcoming, the Buddy Bench is designed for a child to sit on when they have no one to play with during recess, Bencangey says. “The school community is taught to seek out those students sitting on the bench for inclusion with games and play.”

Bencangey attended UCLA Health’s Professional Development Council as a guest, offering his experience bringing a buddy bench to his wife’s third-grade classroom as a jumping-off point for this initiative. PDC members donated funds for the bench. He and fellow RNPH nurses Erika Lozano and Maria Marquez then approached administrators at Linwood E. Howe Elementary School in Culver City, and they ran with it.

Student leaders were recruited to paint the bench in the school’s colors, adding messages of inclusion. The Buddy Bench was unveiled at a schoolwide assembly.

For Bencangey, who drives past it every day, the Buddy Bench is a symbol of kids thriving.

“The patients we get are acutely ill, and we work really hard to get them back to that place. So, getting to see kids that are healthy and knowing that we can put something in place to augment the support that they have in the real world means a lot,” he says.

His passion for helping children steered him toward a career in nursing, says Bencangey, who, with his wife, Teresa, this year adopted their 4-year-old son, Aiden.

“To be able to help young people grow into responsible, caring human beings is priceless,” he says. “If we can do that then I think there’s a chance to change the world for the better.”

Driving food collection

For Maria Straub, BSN RN, CAPA, the most rewarding part of volunteering is seeing the joy others get from giving back. For the past two years, Straub headed Nursing’s annual food drive, sponsored by nurses from Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center in a partnership with Westside Food Bank.

Maria Straub headed the 2020 food drive sponsored by UCLA Health.

Last year, COVID-19 shifted the focus to cereal boxes, she says. Bins were placed on all the nursing units and in front of hospital entrances.

“It was crazy the number of cereal boxes we received,” says Straub, a clinical nurse at the Outpatient Surgery Center in Santa Monica. “People love to donate, and I couldn’t even keep up with what was going on, which was great.”

Nearly $3,500 in monetary donations was collected along with 340 boxes of cereal, plus an additional 960 individual cereal boxes donated by Post Cereal. This year’s food drive began Nov. 1 and continues through Dec. 4. Click here to make a monetary donation.

Straub notes that people appreciate when you give them opportunities to give back. She recalls a man who brought his wife in for treatment and saw the decorated donation bin out front.

“He left while his wife was getting treatment and came back and filled up our whole bin with peanut butter and canned goods and juice boxes,” she recalls. “It’s super touching when you’re creating this and you get others inspired.”

Straub also volunteers at The People Concern, where her committee provides monthly health workshops for individuals in transitional living.

She appreciates that UCLA Health gives nurses the time and resources to participate in volunteerism.

“They definitely encourage us,” she says. “It’s good for them, and it’s good for us. I think it’s a two-way street.”

From food drives to health care overseas

While some people like to hike or read a good book when away from their job, Michelle Santizo, MSN, RN, PHN, prefers to spend her free time helping others.

“Everyone picks their hobbies, and volunteering is just one of my hobbies,” says Santizo, who works in the hematology/oncology bone marrow transplant unit at RRMC. “This is something I love, and I always make time for it.”

Her list of causes is extensive: She’s been on multiple medical missions, volunteered at a monastery checking in migrants coming to the U.S., and provided assistance after Hurricane Michael. She’s served on a free medical brigade in Honduras and traveled to Mexico to care for children after cleft palate surgeries.

Michelle Santizo provides free health care services on L.A.'s Skid Row.

She’s helped with food drives, book drives and prom drives, and is a regular at L.A.’s Skid Row, providing health care to those affected by homelessness and connecting them with social service agencies.

At UCLA Health, Santizo sits on Nursing’s Structural Empowerment Council, where she helps organize events tailored to serve marginalized populations in the West L.A. area. Santizo is one of the founders of an equity, diversity and inclusion council, formed after the murder of George Floyd.

“After his death, a lot of nurses started asking me, ‘What is UCLA Health doing to address equity, diversity and inclusion?’” Santizo recounts. Not having the answers, she started asking nurses what they thought could be improved. She took their feedback to the Professional Development Council, which recently gave approval for the formation of the new council, now formally named Unity in Diversity (UID).

Growing up as the child of immigrant parents, Santizo knows firsthand what it means to lack health care and basic necessities.

“I promised myself to always give back to the community and give someone else the opportunity of hope the way someone provided it to me,” she says.

Passion for caregiving

Kannitha Lor, BSN, RN, PCCN, jumped into volunteering almost from day one on her job at UCLA Health, more than four years ago. The 26-year-old now serves as chair of the Professional Development Council and community outreach lead on the Structural Empowerment Council.

Lor facilitates collaboration between volunteer organizations and UCLA Health, organizes food drives, provides hygiene kits for homeless shelters and serves at wellness events, including Dodgers RBI, a youth development program. She views her commitment to volunteerism as an extension of her passion for caregiving — one she inherited from her parents, who are both nurses.

Kannitha Lor volunteers at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank.

“It’s just another way that we get to express that part of ourselves,” says Lor, a clinical nurse in the coronary care unit at RRMC.

Lor is looking forward to the annual food drive that nurses from RRMC and SMMC organize each November. This year, RRMC will be collaborating with both the Westside Food Bank and Los Angeles LGBT Center. The center provides health care, social services and housing, and several other supportive programs for LGBT individuals and families. “It’s always fun,” Lor says. “People like to give and we’re giving them that avenue to do that.”

As a freshman at UCLA, she took part in UCLA’s Volunteer Day, a day set aside for the UCLA community as a whole to give back. When she became a nurse, she wanted to find a way to continue participating in the event. Through the Structural Empowerment council, she was able to expand the program to include UCLA Health and even organized a friendly hospital-wide competition to see which unit could engage the most volunteers.

“The events ranged from planting trees at a park, painting murals at schools, going to food banks, to doing beach cleanups,” Lor says. “We had a big response from the hospital.”

She applauds UCLA Health for its commitment to equipping nurses with the resources to volunteer. “Whenever we ask for it, they’ll give us the support and give us the people who can help us out.”

Jennifer Karmarkar is the author of this article.