By Jennifer Coburn – Planned Parenthood
When Vernita Gutierrez was a student at Drexel University she went to a Planned Parenthood health center in Philadelphia to get no-cost birth control pills. At the time, she had no idea she would soon launch a career at the San Diego affiliate of the reproductive health care organization.
Today, as Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest (PPPSW) celebrates its 50th anniversary in the region, Gutierrez begins her 25th year with the agency. She is one of the longest serving members of the staff that provides low to no-cost contraception, STD testing and treatment, lifesaving cervical cancer screenings, breast health, male wellness checks, HIV testing, education, community outreach and more. “When I was a patient, I always felt like Planned Parenthood respected me as a person,” says the 52-year-old mother. “I knew these services were needed and wanted to be part of improving health outcomes in the community.”
Gutierrez sites alarming statistics about the rate of HIV, sexually transmitted infections, infant mortality and other reproductive health disparities in the African-American community as one of the reasons she feels so passionately about her work as the Director of Community Engagement for PPPSW. “We [African-Americans] represent 5% of San Diego County’s population and 13% of its new HIV infections,” she says. “Planned Parenthood is committed to addressing health disparities through testing at our centers, education in the community, and political advocacy.” Gutierrez says she is particularly proud of Planned Parenthood’s partnerships with groups like the Faith-Based Action Coalition (FBAC), a coalition of health care providers, faith and community-based organizations that take a collaborative approach to addressing HIV/AIDS in the African-American community. One of the ways FBAC works toward this goal is through education about HIV/AIDS. “There is a real acknowledgment that we all need to work together to turn the tide, and I have great admiration for the work the group does,” she says. “Planned Parenthood has offered testing, education, and condom giveaways at several FBAC and other community-based events. “Working to improve the health of our community should not be treated like a chess competition, but rather as a jigsaw puzzle. Instead of competing with each other we all have a role to play and a piece of the puzzle to contribute to the complete picture.
Gutierrez began her career at Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest as the executive assistant to the President & CEO, and worked her way up. “Vernita’s tireless commitment and passion make her an outstanding leader,” says Nora Vargas, Vice President of Community Engagement. “Her work helps create a better world for today’s young people and future generations.” As Director of Community Engagement, Gutierrez oversees a staff of five people who provide outreach and education through schools, churches, and community groups. Her team provides innovative programs for teen mothers and another for residents of Juvenile Hall.
“Teen mothers and young people who are incarcerated need and deserve support, and Planned Parenthood believes that access to health care education and services increases opportunities to live a positive, productive life,” says Gutierrez.
In addition to her work at Planned Parenthood, Gutierrez serves on the Community Council of the Black Infant Health Program, the San Diego HHSA Healthy Communities Central Region Leadership Team, the Board of Directors of Nu(me)r.a.l.s (New Me, Restored and Liberated Survivor) girls’ empowerment program, and the Board of Project New Village. She is also the Co-Chair of the Health Task Force of the San Diego Refugee Forum.
“One of the things I admire most about Vernita is how deeply she cares for people,” says Darrah DiGiorgio Johnson, President & CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest. “Her compassion knows no limits and she is truly an inspiration to all of us.”
When Gutierrez is not working or volunteering, she is cooking for her friends and family and enjoys experimenting with new foods and new dishes. “Whenever I can, I visit the Project New Village Farmer’s Market to buy fresh produce and to support the farmers and other local folks who come out to sell their products.”
Retirement is still a distant thought to Gutierrez. She is looking forward to many more years of engaging and educating the community around social and reproductive justice issues to effect positive change “where I live and where I work.”
“I want to keep learning and growing and doing. If we don’t keep learning and embracing positive change, we fall behind, and eventually we go backwards.”