A veteran social worker has been hired to run Project Safety Net, Palo Alto's youth mental health coalition formed in the wake of a devastating series of local student deaths by suicide in 2009 and 2010.
Christina Llerena, who started the job based at Lucie Stern Community Center this week, said she hopes to take the community collaborative "to the next level," recruiting student leadership and moving beyond the "deficits focus of suicide prevention" to encompass broader wellness themes.
Llerena (pronounced ya-reh-nah) has worked in social work for more than 17 years in New York City and the Bay Area, most recently as education director for Sacred Heart Community Services in San Jose.
"The Palo Alto community has been extremely proactive and successful in bringing people to the table, creating some infrastructure around action, (suicide) prevention, education and intervention," she said Wednesday.
"There's been a huge amount of groundwork laid in this collaboration."
The community coalition that became Project Safety Net emerged following the second of five student deaths in what came to be considered a "suicide cluster."
The shocking events, which began in spring of 2009, prompted an outpouring of concern from all corners of the community. Over time, staff members from the school district and the city Recreation Department organized the interested parties under an umbrella they named Project Safety Net.
The group holds monthly public meetings to exchange information on activities related to suicide prevention and youth mental health.
It also promotes donations to Track Watch, a combination of volunteers and paid security guards who monitor Caltrain tracks in Palo Alto, where a number of suicides have occurred.
Its stated mission is "to develop and implement an effective, comprehensive, community-based mental health plan for overall youth well-being in Palo Alto."
Besides the city and the school district, members include the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, PTA representatives and a wide array of local nonprofits.
Until now, Project Safety Net has been staffed on a part time basis by Rob de Geus, a manager in the city's Recreation Department and Amy Drolette, coordinator of student services for the school district.
Llerena's hiring as a full-time program director was made possible by funds Stanford University is paying the city in "public benefits" to make up for environmental impacts associated with the hospital's massive, $5 billion expansion project, said Greg Betts, director of the city's Community Services Department.
The 1.3 million-square-foot hospital expansion will exceed Palo Alto zoning regulations, for which Stanford agreed to compensate by paying about $45 million in "public benefits," according to the city.
Stanford's estimate of the community benefit payment is substantially higher -- $175 million -- because it includes the cost of buying Caltrain passes for hospital staff for the next 51 years, which the city considers to be mitigations required by state law.
According to Betts, "$2 million (of the public benefit payment) was earmarked for youth well-being, and a portion of that money was used to be able to hire Christina.
"Part of the objective of the position is not only just coordinating Project Safety Net, but also looking at ways of grant-writing, both foundation and donation support, so the position is somewhat sustainable," Betts said.
Llerena earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of Michigan and a master's in social work from Columbia University.
In an interview Wednesday, she said she was drawn to the job because of a "passion for community collaboratives," which she described as a relatively new phenomenon in her field.
She described a collaborative she launched in Daly City in 2001, using tobacco tax funds to create a childhood and family resource center on the campus of John F. Kennedy Elementary School, now known as Our Second Home. Llerena also worked extensively with seriously emotionally disturbed youth in New York City.
"We were really impressed with the depth of Christina's coalition-building experience and passion for working with youth, including her dedication to youth well-being," City Manager Jim Keene said.