FSA has been distributing food out of its Dorothy Jackson Family Resource Center in Lompoc. | Credit: Courtesy

Family Service Agency of Santa Barbara County (FSA) has assumed vital roles in ensuring that the county’s most vulnerable residents — seniors, farmworkers, and other low-income residents — receive the assistance they need during the pandemic. As always, the nonprofit has been working out of the limelight, quietly and tirelessly.

Starting in mid-April, FSA initiated a collaborative to assist isolated, low-income seniors. Working with 10 other nonprofits countywide and $305,000 in private funding, the Senior Outreach & Assistance Program has provided food, medications, and other essentials to more than 1,200 seniors. Funding ran out at the end of September, but many of the partner organizations are continuing with their own funds, and FSA is fundraising for others.

Another component of the program, coordinated by the Area Agency on Aging and funded by them and through federal funding, serves hot meals to 1,200 seniors, generally five days each week. The largest provider is CommUnify (formerly Community Action Commission), which contracts with S.B. Unified School District to prepare the meals and uses a combination of staff and volunteers for delivery. Pre-COVID, CommUnify was already serving food to seniors in congregate settings and through delivery, but through the collaborative’s outreach, the number of seniors being served expanded. The other partner agencies are Carpinteria Children’s Project, Center for Successful Aging, Central Coast Commission for Senior Citizens, Community Partners in Caring, Cuyama Valley Family Resource Center, Little House by the Park, Lompoc Valley Community Healthcare Organization, Lompoc Valley Medical Center, and People Helping People.

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Executive Director Lisa Brabo (pictured with Deputy Executive Director Steven DeLira) said seniors and their caregivers have been hit especially hard by COVID. | Credit: Courtesy

The key to the success of the program, according to FSA Executive Director Lisa Brabo, was having established, trusted nonprofits throughout the county that had the capability to quickly mobilize to serve those in need. An aggressive outreach effort led to the identification of 900 seniors in need, in addition to the nearly 300 seniors already being served by the partner organizations pre-COVID. Brabo described the new recipients as proud individuals not wanting to ask for help. Somehow COVID, according to Brabo, seems to have given them permission to accept assistance.

COVID has caused stress for everyone, but seniors and their caregivers have been hit especially hard because of their isolation, said Brabo. The assistance has been met with an outpouring of gratitude. FSA is seeking funding to continue both components of the program.

Another critical role FSA has assumed is reviewing nearly 2,400 applications received by the United Way of Santa Barbara County for individual assistance under the privately funded Joint Response Effort and for rental assistance under city and county programs funded through the Federal CARES Act. FSA performed a similar role for United Way in the relief efforts following the Thomas Fire and 1/9 Debris Flow.

More than $2.5 million has been distributed to date. Application processing starts and stops when new funding comes in and dries up. There is currently a waitlist of 370 applications for individual assistance, 348 applications for rental assistance under the city program, and 99 applications for rental assistance under the county program.

Through its operation of four Family Resource Centers (Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, Lompoc, and Guadalupe), FSA has been assessing the needs of individuals and families for a long time, which makes its staff well suited to review COVID relief applications. In the screening process, staff inquires about needs beyond the cash or rental assistance applicants are seeking. Often, staff learns of other needs, such as health insurance, unemployment insurance, utility assistance, or food assistance, which staff then addresses.

FSA recently was selected by the county to manage the Housing for the Harvest program. The state provides funding for 14-day hotel stays for farmworkers unable to quarantine at home after testing positive for or being exposed to COVID-19. Significantly, the program also funds wellness checks, which FSA handles. Staff greets participants upon arrival at the hotel, does multiple remote wellness checks each day, including ensuring participants self-administer oxygen and temperature checks. Under a FEMA-funded program, FSA also delivers three hot meals each day.

Housing for the Harvest staff members Eunice Valle and Ofelia Velasco get fitted with PPE in case they need to enter a participant’s hotel room. | Credit: Courtesy

Establishing trust with participants is critical, according to FSA Program Supervisor Lisa Valencia Sherratt, and having staff members who share common cultural and linguistic backgrounds with participants greatly facilitates this. Many of the county’s farmworkers are Indigenous and speak only Mixteco, while others are Mexicans speaking only Spanish. When an Indigenous staff member starts speaking Mixteco to a participant, Sherratt related, a smile instantly appears and trust quickly follows.

Staff members strive to make participants as comfortable as possible during the difficult isolation period, providing supplies and connecting them with any needed services. Food that is both nutritious and culturally familiar is delivered from restaurants. To date, only five farmworkers have participated in the new program, but FSA is doing extensive outreach to the agricultural and health-care sectors to maximize awareness of the program.

FSA also stepped up with flu vaccinations this fall. While flu vaccines are more important than ever this year because of COVID, FSA had to cancel its Senior Expo, where several hundred seniors typically got vaccinated at the Earl Warren Showgrounds. This year, FSA enlisted the County Medical Reserve Corps to administer vaccines, supplied by Sansum Clinic, for more than 500 low-income seniors where they live. Collaborating with other nonprofits, FSA identified those in need at low-income housing facilities, mobile home parks, and other places where the organizations knew the need existed.

FSA is also among the many partners of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County. FSA has been distributing food out of its Dorothy Jackson Family Resource Center in Lompoc and also making deliveries in the area.

FSA was tapped by County Public Health to do contract tracing alongside county staff from mid-May to mid-September. FSA’s bilingual and trilingual staff made it an attractive partner.

Along with assuming all of these new roles during COVID, FSA has continued its multitude of other programs, with modifications where necessary, for youth, families, and seniors. FSA has a $12 million budget, largely funded by government contracts, but the nonprofit also relies on private grants and donations for a significant portion of its budget.

For more info or to make a donation, go to fsacares.org. If you are interested in volunteering as a driver for CommUnify’s meal delivery program, contact Joni Kelly at (805) 964 8857 or jkelly@CommUnifySB.org.

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