Social worker hired to lead youth-wellness coalition

Recruit for Project Safety Net most recently worked at Sacred Heart Community Services

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.

Chris Kenrick


Like this comment
Posted by Sheri
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 11, 2012 at 1:01 pm

How about using some of that Stanford public benefit money to fund the Animal Shelter, especially as it benefits Stanford residents? Not to sound anti-youth, but there are also other services this town needs and values.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 11, 2012 at 1:05 pm

Apart from the obvious question of whether we can afford another City employee, I would like to know exactly what she will be doing? Will she have an office, and an assistant, and a budget? Will she be doing things that are presently done by qualified volunteers for a great deal more expense? Will she be working hand in glove with some of our existing youth organizations, the Y, Boys and Girls Scouts, our high schools, our church youth groups, etc. etc.?

While I like the idea of having a full time youth advocate in Palo Alto, I am wary of this announcement. Unless we know what exactly she will be asked to do, I can't see this than anything more than fluff. I give her a year to prove her worth. After that, she is just another City Hall employee.

Like this comment
Posted by I agree
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 11, 2012 at 2:30 pm

Yes, what will be her job description?

Like this comment
Posted by Fed up
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 11, 2012 at 3:41 pm

Looks like a lot of money was there to burn, with Stanford having chipped in.

Consider it like a government purchase, for instance, where $10 hammers cost $1,000 in government money, and are rarely, if ever, used. The budget for that department is kept high, for future years.
City Hall is happy.

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of another community
on Apr 11, 2012 at 9:52 pm

These comments are stunning. Do you really think that this is a waste of money? A sad number of young people have committed suicide in Palo Alto. God forbid there's another tragedy in another family.

If Ms. Lierena's outreach prevents one more suicide, we should be thankful.

Perhaps it's time for the citizens, and this newspaper, to ask: What kind of community has Palo Alto become?

Like this comment
Posted by Bruce J
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 12, 2012 at 7:56 am

A huge THANKS to Rob de G and Amy D for their significant efforts on PSN over the past few years. They stepped in our time of need and did some amazing work.

Like this comment
Posted by WELCOME and Thank You
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2012 at 10:50 am

Welcome, welcome Ms. Llerena! Thank you for saying yes to Palo Alto's call and sharing your skills with our community. There is still important and helpful work to be done. Thank you to the City Council for allocating a portion of the Stanford's public benefit dollars to the overall effort of Project Safety net and youth wellbeing in PA.

Dear Resident, I agree, & Fed Up... speaking of effort, a quick (and free!) google search for details and a job description would have provided you with this up-front link and answers to a number of your questions: Web Link

Hard work? Needed? Qualified? Well thought through? Paid for? - yes. Fluff? - no.

Still wary, questioning or disgruntled (respectively)? Check it out for yourselves - get involved or come to a meeting. Then, please post.

Like this comment
Posted by Fed up
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 12, 2012 at 11:40 am

@Welcome: City workers often begin their work with good intentions. But something about Palo Alto City hall discourages people with good intentions. It cripples their efforts.

Remember the "anonymous employee hotline" to report co-workers? That did not happen in a vaccuum.

Palo Alto is a twisted system that rewards the incompetent & those towing the line, underachievers, just waiting for retirement.

But thanks for the web link - you went the extra mile, and your attitude is good. You are obviously not a city employee.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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