Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - April 16, 2010

Guest Opinion: The challenge of connecting families to resources they need

by Minka van der Zwaag

"I don't know who to call. My daughter is sick and we don't have medical insurance; I hope you can help me," the woman said to Erwin Gonzales, the Family Resources information coordinator as he answered the hotline recently.

It turns out he could help. After learning more about her situation, Erwin referred the worried mother to several local low-cost and free medical clinics. Luckily, many of us will never encounter such a scary situation, yet we may have questions about local services and, like the caller, we won't know where to seek help.

That's where the City of Palo Alto's Family Resources Program comes in. Now celebrating its 10th year, Family Resources is a collaboration between the City of Palo Alto, the Family Resources Foundation, human-services providers and the community.

At its core, it's an information-and-referral service to which people can turn when they need information on a wide variety of services that exist in our community. Such services include child care, educational options, disability resources, health care assistance, counseling providers and basic-survival needs such as rent assistance and food.

Even though I work for the city, the program has a personal meaning. I was excited to first hear about the Family Resources Program when I was working as the facility manager at the Lucie Stern Community Center back in 2000. The center is a natural gathering place for the community, with hundreds of families coming through our doors daily, many of whom would stop to ask staff questions about local resources — most of which we did not know how to answer.

I participated in the first Ambassador Development class and learned about the myriad of wonderful resources available in the community, and was able to go back and share this knowledge with our staff and visitors. I enjoyed the ambassador program so much that I coordinated the class for a couple of years.

Last month, our 11th Ambassador class graduated! The community is lucky to have more than 200 people trained to know about local resources and be willing to share that information with those around them, and those with specific needs at certain critical times — which can happen to all of us.

There are four ways to get assistance. The program website (www.cityofpaloalto.com/familyresources) lists more than 600 mostly local social-service agencies arranged by helpful categories. It is updated annually, essential to keeping it relevant. Resources are also listed in reference binders displayed in desktop kiosks at more than 70 locations around town, such as City Hall, library branches and community centers.

There is active outreach through the Ambassador Development Program, a free training program for community members, local nonprofit service providers, city staff and local leaders. Ambassadors learn about local resources and reach out to those in need.

Lastly, an information coordinator will meet with people one-on-one at the central office at Cubberley Community Center.

Family Resources began as a concept embraced by then City Council member Liz Kniss (now a Santa Clara County Supervisor) during her term as mayor in 1994, Palo Alto's Centennial year. She made two observations at that time: (1) While there was a vast array of services provided in the Palo Alto community, many didn't know of them when they needed them, and easier access to information about these services was badly needed, and (2) families were experiencing an increased sense of isolation.

Kniss convened a broad-based task force to familiarize itself with the concerns of Palo Alto's families and develop a plan for the city to assist in addressing some of those needs. This tied in with interests of community-based organizations struggling to get information out about their services. State Senator Joe Simitian, then a county supervisor, had named a liaison to local nonprofit organizations to address this and other challenges they faced.

From that important work blossomed the Family Resources Program.

Now, 10 years after its founding, Family Resources still meets the needs of the community and helps to create one-to-one connections.

To celebrate our 10th Anniversary and raise support for the continuation of the program, the Family Resources Foundation is hosting a celebration on Tuesday, April 27, 5:30 p.m. at the Four Seasons Hotel, at University Avenue and Highway 101. We will be honoring Supervisor Kniss for her visionary leadership in founding Family Resources. Keynote speaker James R. Doty, M.D., the director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, will discuss ways to cultivate these traits within an individual, a community and a society. Tickets are $25 each and can be reserved by calling 650-329-2221. Please join me and others as we celebrate this important service.

The Family Resources Foundation was created in 2006 and has since taken over primary financial support of the program. This support is especially important now as the City of Palo Alto's financial situation continues to evolve. Like most cities across California, our budget gap has widened as we experience the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression.

The Foundation will continue to look to the community and other avenues to help keep this program operational and financially viable in the future.

Minka van der Zwaag is the Interim Human Services Manager for the City of Palo Alto. She can be e-mailed at minka.vanderzwaag@cityofpaloalto.org.

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