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The S.B. Questionnaire: Alana Walczak

Breaking the Cycle of Child Abuse with the Executive Director of CALM

Alana Walczak CEO of the nonprofit CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation). (June 27, 2019) | Credit: Paul Wellman

“It’s essential to know that you don’t have to pass this on to the next generation,” explains Alana Walczak, executive director of CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation), about the nonprofit’s mission to end child abuse. “All families and children, with the right support and care, can break the cycle. It’s really important work.”  

Prior to starting at CALM in 2015, Alana spent more than 20 years working with nonprofits to help at-risk women, children, and families. “Before, I’d done good work, but I’m aligned in such a way with CALM like I’ve never felt before,” she tells me over lunch. “I knew I came from a family with childhood trauma. I was spared physical and sexual abuse, but still had to deal with emotional abuse and domestic violence. I minimized the power of that trauma, for I wasn’t physically or sexually abused.”  

She acknowledges that there’s so much secrecy and silence around the subject of abuse. “It’s important to write and tell my story,” she states.  “As long as one person can find some comfort, that’s a powerful thing.”  

When she came to work for CALM, she recalls an employee speaking to her about emotional attunement, about being attuned to the emotional needs and feelings of others.  Alana couldn’t quite do that yet. “I’d done a lot of work,” she explains. “But I had pushed certain things aside. Emotional attunement — having a healthy connection to a primary caregiver — is the most important thing.  It sets up the pathway to a child for emotional connection, and it requires a safe place.”  

As the head of CALM, Alana realizes that she’s in the right place, at the right time, on the right issue. CALM continues to be the only nonprofit agency in Santa Barbara County focused solely on preventing, assessing, and treating child abuse and family violence through comprehensive, cutting-edge programs. “When you’re doing your life’s work, it’s so powerful,” she reflects. “I’m in my zone. I’m doing what I love.” 

Alana was born into working class family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She attended Pious XI High School and Washington University in St. Louis, where she met her future husband, Jarrod Schwartz. The first in her family to go to college, she planned to be a pediatrician because becoming a doctor was “the thing.” Though she got into all of the medical schools she wanted, Alana realized that the field wouldn’t work for her, confessing, “I didn’t like blood nor hospitals.” 

So she started working at Youth Emergency Services, a homeless shelter for abused and runaway kids. It was a pivotal moment. “I experienced that medical help wasn’t the priority for these kids, but mental well-being was,” she says. “I also learned how all of our systems don’t work together.”  

She completed graduate work at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, and at 22 years of age, became the executive director for a domestic violence nonprofit called Breaking Free. In 1998, she moved to St. Louis to work at SouthSide Day Nursery; one of the oldest childcare centers in the nation, it’s located in a severely impoverished neighborhood, where domestic and child abuse are common. One of her favorite jobs yet, she worked there for three years.

In 2001, Alana and Jarrod moved to Santa Barbara, where she first worked for the Environmental Defense Center as development director.  From 2002 to 2003, she was the associate executive director for Domestic Violence Solutions, then became program director for the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center, in charge of fundraising and program management.  

“I burned out on trauma work,” admits Alana, who then went to work as vice president for PathPoint, the nonprofit dedicated to helping people with disabilities or disadvantages reach their fullest potential. “It was really instructive for me,” she recalls. “It made me value the things you take for granted.”

In 2015, Cecilia Rodriguez, the leader of CALM for 31 years who’d been a big mentor to Alana, suggested she become her successor. “I’m really proud of how we’re growing,” Alana says about her tenure with the organization. 

“One in 10 kids are experiencing trauma, and they’re experiencing trauma in silence,” she explains. “The issue of childhood trauma is bigger than one institution can handle, so we’re working in partnership with other organizations and education systems. I get to work with the best people. Our clinicians are changing lives. I’m proud of that.”

Alana Walczak answers the Proust Questionnaire.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Is it overly indulgent to say that I really like who I am today? I’ve conquered big fears, overcome some pretty big issues, and have learned to accept myself, warts and all. Everything I’ve experienced —  the happy and the sad — have made me uniquely “me.” And I like how it’s all turned out! 

But, if I’m being fully honest, I’d love to learn how to truly relax. That’s something I struggle with, and that’s the next phase of my growth. 

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Raising the most exquisitely brilliant, beautiful, and charming girls on the planet. I was terribly afraid of becoming a mom due to my own childhood experiences. And I was really scared to have a daughter. 

And, then lo and behold, I gave birth to twin daughters! I had to dig deep and confront a lot of deep wounds. But, I’m so proud that in one generation, I have interrupted the cycle of trauma that existed in my family. I am very proud and eternally grateful. Alix and Sydney are my greatest gifts.

What is your most marked characteristic?
What you see is what you get. Also, I do what I say I will do.

Who do you most admire?
Anyone comfortable in their own skin who is able to authentically be themselves. 
Anyone who understands that vulnerability is a strength.
Anyone who speaks up against injustice and who challenges the status quo.

What do you like most about your job?
I love pretty much everything about it! I have the privilege of advancing a mission that means everything to me. I engage in meaningful work that is literally changing lives. And I get to work with some of the most amazing humans on the planet. What could be better than that?  

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Meaningful connection and conversation with smart, interesting people. With lots of laughter. Ideally in a beautiful location. And, with tons of great wine! 

What is your greatest fear?
Receiving word that something has happened to one of my daughters. 

What is your greatest extravagance?
I’m not a very extravagant person, but I’d like to start an “extravagance practice” focused on international travel. It’s been a good 10 years since I’ve done any real travel. I’ve gotta get busy!

What is your current state of mind?
Engaged, excited, curious, hopeful, happy, grateful, fulfilled

What is the quality you most like in people?
Honesty and self-awareness. And, a witty sense of humor is a tremendous plus!

What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Greed, selfishness, ignorance, apathy, and learned helplessness. It also really pisses me off when people deny the existence of systemic oppression.

What do you most value in friends?
Honest feedback, a commitment to mutuality and trust, loyalty and laughter.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
My colleagues tease that my favorite phrase is “Let’s map it out!” A close second is “well, THAT was a shit show!” And, if you asked my daughters this question, they would laugh and share that they’re always telling me: “Language, mommy, language!” So, I guess I swear a lot. 

Which talent would you most like to have?
I wish I had kept up two things: playing piano and speaking Spanish. I stopped my practice too soon on both so I never quite hit mastery. Both of those skills would give me great joy. 

Where would you most like to live?
Well, I love living in Santa Barbara. Having grown up in Wisconsin, I never take for granted all that we have on the Central Coast: perfect weather, mountains and ocean, flowers abloom in all seasons, and a vibrant community of engaged people. But I’d be lying if Florence or Paris wasn’t on the list too. A girl can dream…

What is your most treasured possession?
A necklace of a momma sea turtle holding a baby sea turtle. It was given to me by a very special person after a very special experience in honor of a very special decision. I can tell you the story sometime!

Who makes you laugh the most? 
My children, my colleagues, and my closest friends. Witty banter is a lifeline!
I’m happy to report that I laugh a lot — lucky, lucky me!

What is your motto? 
Do what you love. Love what you do.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Jane Addams. She was a badass. 

On what occasion do you lie? 
When I answer the Proust Questionnaire (just kidding!). I have learned from my daughters that it’s absolutely possible to hold two disparate feelings at the same time. For example, I can be happy and sad. Or grateful and disappointed. And, if I’m able to honor the totality of an experience, it’s pretty hard to lie. It’s just…complex!

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