Trona Strong: Small town, big heart
After a pair of devastating earthquakes rocked the rural desert community nearly four years ago, many of the residents couldn’t recover, shuttered their homes and simply walked away. Others who stayed just haven’t been able to replace the broken glass.
But make no mistake – the Trona citizens who remain love their town. They’re Trona Strong.
Despite the damaged windows, the door to welcome partners like Inland Empire Health Plan (IEHP) – and the help and resources it can offer – is wide open.
‘BRING NEW HOPE’
“We’re isolated out here in a lot of different ways and it’s a struggle to get many services,” said Trona resident Julia Pitman, who recently attended a special in-person meeting with IEHP CEO Jarrod McNaughton at the Trona Community Senior Center. “I was pleased to hear that we had a visit from your team (to) bring new hope to the community.”
IEHP was eager to show up for Trona.
“The questions that came up, the suggestions that came up today – none of that, I don’t believe, we would have received if we had done some kind of a virtual call or something,” said McNaughton later that day. “I think you have to come in person to really feel what folks are going through, to feel their passion for their community as well.”
Even before the 6.4, then 7.1 temblors that hit the town just one day apart, July 4 and 5, 2019, Trona struggled with the changing landscape of its dwindling population (now less than 2,000) and employment opportunities.
Searles Valley Minerals is still the largest employer in Trona.
Trona was “born” a company town – literally. In 1914, the American Trona Company established its namesake for the mineral found in the Searles dry lakebed. The community and its residents flourished for the next 60 years, until a series of unfortunate events including factory buy-outs, production cuts and massive layoffs. Thousands of people left Trona.
Then, in 2019, the double-whammy of the double quakes, followed by the COVID-19 pandemic less than a year later. Then more residents moved away.
Along Trona’s timeline, there are bright spots.
Football is still a big draw, including games at Trona High School’s all-dirt gridiron – known as the “Pit” –home to the Tornadoes’ eight-man football team. The unique surface mix of sand, grit and rocks is famous: It’s been featured in national media outlets.
Future athletes are only a short pass away at the neighboring elementary school whose mascot is the Twisters and where students and teachers alike occasionally dress up as their favorite character for Disney Days.
The nearby Trona Pinnacles and surrounding areas – with their otherworldly look and feel – appear as unusual scenic landscapes in various TV shows and Hollywood films, mostly of the sci-fi variety. And sometimes, news crews and photographers pass through town to document Trona’s struggles and steadfast devotion.
Much to diners’ delight, Trona’s only eatery – Esparza’s Family Restaurant – recently reopened in a new location, but still serving everyone’s favorite Mexican fare. Its previous spot remains red-tagged from the earthquakes.
Nowadays, Trona residents say it’s time to look forward and find solutions for current gaps like health care access and potential career development for its young people.
On Dec. 14, IEHP hosted Winter Wonderland, a large resource fair with dental services, vaccines and other health information. The well-attended event also featured a regular bi-weekly fresh produce distribution, established after ongoing feedback sessions with residents. This collaboration started in 2021, before IEHP officially expanded its health plan coverage area to rural areas, including outlying areas along the borders of San Bernardino County, in January 2022.
At the community meeting with IEHP’s CEO McNaughton – which included a lunch catered by Esparza’s – Trona residents were asked to share their town’s top needs.
“The biggest thing is how can we get health services in Trona,” said Priscilla Benadom, a longtime Trona resident and recent retiree as the senior center’s program coordinator.
Following the meeting, McNaughton wanted to see the area and some of its logistical challenges firsthand, so he took a tour of the city. McNaughton also stopped for a brief visit with those Twisters at the elementary school, distributing IEHP swag bags and chocolate chip cookies.
And because it was Disney Day, he even broke out into a booming rendition of the theme song, “Let It Go” from the mega hit movie “Frozen” for one of several Elsas in the classroom.
“It’s an honor for IEHP to be connected now – finally – into this community where we can do some pretty cool things together with them,” McNaughton said.