Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - August 3, 2012

On Deadline: A stronger 'Project Safety Net' is patching holes, renewing its vision

by Jay Thorwaldson

A wide collaboration of community groups, the city and school officials in Palo Alto — under the "Project Safety Net" banner — is evolving from a crisis-response effort to a long-term focus on youth wellness and well-being.

Two new hires, one by the city and one by the Palo Alto Unified School District, are spearheading the evolution, which some call a refocus on Project Safety Net's core mission. One deeply involved person calls it "pushing the reset button."

The Safety Net effort is a weaving together of programs that those involved hope will help young persons feel more a part of the community, both within school and beyond, and "de-stigmatize" the seeking of help when one is in distress.

The crisis, of course, was the tragic loss in 2009-10 of five young persons to suicide. Amidst the grief was something akin to a community panic about that "cluster" of deaths, now subsided despite technically still being in a "contagion" period.

There have been significant accomplishments thus far on many fronts, as well as some challenges common to such community reactions to tragic events — whether they be related to drunk driving, drug or alcohol deaths, traffic accidents or violence. The big challenge in most cases is sustaining the response over time, as memories fade and people's natural desire to let things recede into the past takes hold.

The new people joining the effort are Christina Llerena, an experienced social worker hired by the city last April to head up Project Safety Net full time, and Brenda Carrillo hired by the school district to head up student services and be the district's primary contact with the project. They replace Greg Betts in the city Recreation Department, who only had part-time to lead the Safety Net effort, and Amy Drolette from the school district.

Llerena, plain spoken and candid, has a lengthy history of community work and helping build collaborative efforts, a relatively new field of social work for which she expressed a professional passion.

She also outlined a challenging priority: to take Project Safety Net "to the next level," moving beyond the "deficits focus of suicide prevention" toward broad wellness themes — all within the ambitious mission "to develop and implement an effective, comprehensive, community-based mental health plan for overall youth well-being in Palo Alto."

Recruiting student leadership and involvement is a large component of the new direction, including support for a student-run candidates' forum for City Council candidates this fall, still in discussion stages. And her job includes writing grants and seeking support from both foundations and individuals.

Llerena hit Palo Alto on the run, meeting with more that 55 people in the first two months, including Gunn and Palo Alto high school principals Katya Villalobos and Phil Winston.

She said she heard of the Palo Alto position from a friend in Daly City, checked out the job description and thought, "Wow. This is right up my alley." She was directing an education department for Sacred Heart Community Service at the time.

She survived two major interview panels in addition to caring for her family that includes two daughters, Isabel, 4 1/2, and Lucia, 2.

Llerena received a bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of Michigan and a master's degree in social work from Columbia University.

Early in her 17-year social-work career she worked extensively with emotionally distressed youths in New York City. She later became involved with building collaborations, including one she developed in Daly City in 2001, creating a childhood and family resource center at John F. Kennedy Elementary School.

"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 in announcing her hiring.

She said she had some definite first impressions of Palo Alto.

"I had been working in so many poor neighborhoods, I was struck by the affluence and beauty of Palo Alto — and that it's just a very small town."

She also was impressed that "In Palo Alto people are really connected and civically engaged."

When the press announcement went out, "there were 17 voicemails waiting for me" when she got home, welcoming her to the community and reflecting a real commitment to youth, she said.

Reflecting that commitment to young people will be a core challenge of her job and of the Safety Net effort.

The complexity and breadth of involvement extends beyond the city and school district to include a variety of community-based nonprofit organizations, PTA groups, Lucile Packard Children's Hospital and the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.

Scott Glissmeyer, head of the Palo Alto Family YMCA, said the collaboration is right in line with the Y's longtime emphasis on youth and family well-being, and complements a new program, "Alternate Youth," launched last year at Palo Verde, Fairmeadow and Barron Park elementary schools, which is funded by the Y's Marsh Madness event in the baylands at the end of October.

"Project Safety Net has undergone a huge process of figuring out where it is going next," Glissmeyer said. In its first three years it has racked up solid accomplishments, he said.

But there are concerns that the collaboration's 22 specific goals "are kind of overwhelming. Everyone agrees we need to narrow the focus." That's actively in the works: A "narrowing" planning session was held July 26.

Meg Durbin, a Palo Alto Medical Foundation physician involved with Project Safety Net, has launched a separate initiative to improve how medical and health professionals respond to young persons in distress emotionally — as a Weekly/Palo Alto Online story outlined last week.

Becky Beacom, in the Medical Foundation's Education Division and a leader of the collaborative effort, said that despite some glitches and rough spots the new emphasis on youth wellness is heartening.

"I'm optimistic" about the success and continuing vigor of the effort, particularly with the new positive emphasis.

"We want to grow the health that is here," she said.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He also writes biweekly blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).

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