Rhapsody in Blue

In 2019, UCLA Health and the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation — the charitable arm of the Los Angeles Dodgers — entered into a partnership to provide resources to benefit underserved communities in the city. At any other time, the relationship might simply have moved forward along an expected trajectory, each party playing its distinct role to advance their joint mission. But just a year in, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and in an instant both organizations had to pivot to meet the urgent demands of the emerging crisis. Rather than testing the young relationship, however, the pandemic proved to fortify it, says Nichol Whiteman, CEO of the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation. “Together, we looked at what was happening and how it was affecting the communities we both want to serve, and together we developed a plan to respond to it. Partnership,” she says, “was the secret sauce that made it possible JESSICA PONS CONVERSATION RHAPSODY IN BLUE UCLA Health and the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation find common cause to uplift underserved communities in Los Angeles. 20 for us both to respond in a positive and beneficial way.” UCLA Health chief of communications Judy Fortin sat down with Whiteman at Dodger Stadium and spoke with her about the partnership, its successes and both organizations’ hopes for the future. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

As CEO of the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation, you have cultivated partnerships across a broad spectrum of industries that have generated more than $40 million in community investment. The foundation and UCLA Health first joined forces in 2019. Why did the Dodgers enter into a partnership with UCLA Health?

Nichol Whiteman: It is about excellence. Both the Dodgers and UCLA Health are about being excellent. Both the Dodgers and UCLA Health want to serve and do good for our community. There is a natural affinity here. Sports is a way for people to enjoy themselves and to have fun, a diversion that brings thousands — tens of thousands — of people together in one place. It is a choice that fans make to come together for the enjoyment of sport. Health care, on the other hand, is not a diversion, it is not a choice; it is a necessity. But sport and health care are, each in its own way, two powerful forces that, when brought together through our partnership, multiply the positive impact we each can have on the lives of Angelenos. The whole of our work together is greater than the sum of our parts.

On the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation website, it states: “The Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation envisions a city where everyone, regardless of zip code, has the opportunity to thrive,” and it goes on to say that the foundation “is bigger than baseball.” What does that mean?

Whiteman: It means that we are using the Dodgers brand to amplify the impact we can have, beyond the enjoyment of baseball, to address needs in underserved communities that can benefit from our resources, our services and our support. It means we are using the Dodgers brand to provide access and opportunities to youths and families throughout Los Angeles who otherwise might not have the opportunity to thrive.

Let’s talk more about how each participant in this partnership supports and enhances the efforts of the other.

Whiteman: Our alliance with UCLA Health has been one of the best partnerships we’ve had in my almost 10 years as head of the foundation. We knew we were entering into something special, but I don’t think we knew at the start just how powerful and important this partnership would become. For the foundation to have a role in the work that UCLA Health is doing in the community — beyond what is being done within its hospitals and clinics — is tremendously special and fulfilling. The care that UCLA Health provides to the homeless, the programs it has implemented to enhance community health, its mobile clinics to provide vision care or emergency response to patients having a stroke — all of these things, and more, send the message that UCLA Health is in the community and cares about the community and wants to make a difference in the community, and that is exactly the mission, too, of the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation. It’s about meeting people where they’re at. I think that UCLA Health is very unique in this regard. A lot of hospital systems don’t do that. I think the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation and UCLA Health are great partners because we believe in the same things and our missions are aligned, our visions are aligned, and we’re really about getting the work done. If there’s a need, we’re going to figure it out, and we’ve done a really good job of doing it together.

We have talked somewhat in the abstract about the relationship between the foundation and UCLA Health. Let’s talk, now, about where the rubber meets the road. How has this partnership moved the needle to improve community health?

Whiteman: UCLA Health provides a number of services to underserved communities that are at the core of our partnership. Within our Dodgers Dreamteam Program [formerly Dodgers RBI], which is our sports-based youth-development program that serves 12,000 youths at 88 locations throughout Los Angeles, UCLA Health has joined us on the ground to provide vision and health screenings on a regular basis. During the worst of the pandemic, when we thought we would never be able to leave the house, UCLA Health provided PE kits to families and participated in our Dodger Day drive-throughs to provide masks and hygiene essentials to thousands of families throughout Los Angeles. It made it possible for thousands of families to receive a level of care — and caring — that they might not otherwise have received. Together with the Dodgers, UCLA Health came into communities and said to the people, “We are here for you.” They provided services for free, and referrals if there was an issue that needed to be checked further. It is a tremendous statement from both the Dodgers and UCLA Health to show up in a community, to set up a tent in a local recreation center or park, and to say, “We are here, in your neighborhood, around the corner from your house, and we can help you.” We have worked with UCLA Health to educate communities about fitness and nutrition, and we have provided resources for thousands of Dodgers Dreamteam players to participate in fitness classes. We’ve worked with UCLA Health Sound Body Sound Mind to ensure that gyms in schools throughout Los Angeles have what they need. And we are excited about engaging in a partnership that amplifies what UCLA Health is doing to provide care to the unhoused population of this city. We know that it’s important to move beyond Dodger Stadium and beyond UCLA Health hospitals and clinics to ensure that Angelenos know we are here for them.

You mentioned the pandemic. How has that affected this relationship?

Whiteman: I like to say that the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation was built for this moment in time, and I really believe that UCLA Health was as well. We are two like-minded organizations coming together to address an enormous problem. We both were able to quickly pivot and come up with a plan to work together to deliver services to vulnerable populations. Our relationship grew stronger during the pandemic. It made us double down on our initial commitment to communities and to say we’re going to do more, and we’re going to make sure it happens more often, and we’re going to bring our resources to new communities. The passion of the UCLA Health staff who contributed their personal time to be on the ground with us, who joined us for events, passing out masks and hygiene items — it was really, really awesome to know in this time of need that we have a partner with such compassion and commitment.

You have been CEO of the foundation for almost 10 years. Ten years from now, when you look back, what do you envision as the lasting legacy of the partnership between the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation and UCLA Health?

Whiteman: Legacy is important to me, and it is baked into so much of what we do here. Our strategic plan is very much focused on sustainability. We’ve done a lot to create programs, but right now it’s about sustaining them, ensuring that they endure. When I look at UCLA Health and the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation, I see this as a partnership that could be for a lifetime, a partnership that could exist forever. We are building something together that we want to be able to look back on and say, “Wow!” We hope that in 10 years, we will be able to look back and know that we served millions of people — specifically black and brown people in underserved communities here in Los Angeles. We want to look back and know that we have been able to instill trust in those people and that they know that the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation and UCLA Health are here for them, and that they pass that sense of trust on to their family members and friends. The need that drives what we are doing is not going to go away in the next 10 years. Continuing to strengthen and grow this partnership will provide even greater benefits for many more communities. I think that the expansion of what we’re doing today projected 10 years into the future is going to lead to something phenomenal.

Do you have any concluding thoughts?

Whiteman: I don’t think when UCLA Health and the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation first signed the contract to enter into this partnership that anyone thought it would be so holistic. But it truly is a partnership, in every sense of the word. We are committed to doing this work together. We have had many partnerships, and I can say that UCLA Health walks the walk. That really shines through for me: UCLA Health walks the walk.