Just a few blocks away from the bustle of downtown Palo Alto, there is a house whose old-fashioned style, blue hues and slender palm tree evoke feelings of serenity. A white picket fence and a gate overhung by vines separate the sidewalk from a leafy garden, where lawn chairs sit invitingly in the sun.
Though once a home and later a bed and breakfast, Deborah's Palm at 555 Lytton Ave. now serves as a hub of myriad activities, both formal and informal. Women take art classes or practice knitting together. Others gather to discuss common interests, concerns or topics -- whether they are food-related issues, human trafficking, poetry or getting acquainted with Palo Alto. Still more meet one-on-one with a counselor or mentors to discuss new directions for their lives and careers.
While some might find such a variety of purposes as unfocused, this mixture is exactly what Katie Ritchey, 59, envisioned when she set out to create a women's community center in Palo Alto. Going through a series of intense personal crises in the early 2000s, the native Palo Altan returned to school to study human services and settled on the idea of working at a women's center.
When she didn't find one nearby, she decided to create one herself, an all-purpose community for women.
"There are places in San Francisco ... (and) in San Jose, but they are mostly serving a particular population, like unwed moms or recovery or abuse ... or some kind of transition housing or programming," said Ritchey, who owns the house and serves as executive director. "But what I wanted to do was just to have a general women's center ... where all these different services were in one place."
Today Deborah's Palm assists about 125 women a week through one-off lectures, regular classes and counseling sessions. Some women just wander through the door. In May, the nonprofit marked its fourth year of operation.
Volunteers staff the front entry ready to provide information on the center's offerings or alert visitors to other resources in the community, whether they be another local nonprofit or a place to find a free hot meal. Ritchey described the women the center serves as diverse in ethnicity, age and economic circumstances. Comparing it to her original vision, she sees the center as embracing a larger circle of women than she had expected.
"I think I had a pretty narrow view of the type of clientele that would come in," she said. "I think I just envisioned really destitute and needy people, but everyone's destitute and needy. It just looks different in different people."
Ariza Valadao dropped in to Deborah's Palm a few months ago, having stumbled upon it on a walk around downtown. After talking to Ritchey and browsing the array of literature in the lobby, she decided to sign up for a lunch with the center's newcomers' group.
In 2012, Valadao moved to downtown Palo Alto from her hometown of Sao Paolo, Brazil, to be closer to her daughter and grandchildren. With a history of involvement with social issues and policymaking in Brazil -- focused particularly on women's issues -- she was determined to have more than a casual relationship with the city and community.
"Once I decided to live in the United States, I want to be part of the community," she said. "I don't want to be living as if I were a visitor. It's very important for me to be accepted and be part of it and maybe help somehow."
Along with mentoring, counseling and career guidance, Ritchey pointed to relocation support as one of the most often sought-after services at Deborah's Palm. To meet that need, volunteer "ambassadors" are available to meet with people new to the area to practice language skills, show them around or just chat. Twice a month, the center also offers a Newcomer's Coffee and Potluck event.
When Valadao attended one, she met six or seven women from other countries and states -- even one local woman new to the center. Volunteer Myrna Lantzsch led the conversation, talking about the activities available at Deborah's Palm as well as her own experience in moving to Palo Alto from out of state. Valadao said that the women there, more or less, were all "looking for the same thing that I was."
"It's always good to hear different accents," she said, smiling. "You feel very much comfortable."
Since that first meeting, Valadao has continued to come to Deborah's Palm, attending other newcomers' meetings to share her experience. In addition to volunteering for larger events, she also participates in a walking group, which meets on Fridays to socialize and meander around town.
Valadao credits Deborah's Palm with helping her "find her way" and expanding her involvement and social circle in this new place. However, she pointed to other groups that the center organizes -- meetings for women grieving or going through a divorce -- that provide invaluable support to women in other difficult periods of life.
"I believe those are things that women in general need very much and don't find everywhere," she said.
Marcia Davis-Cannon teaches a class at Deborah's Palm called "Uncover Your Calling," a 12-week course on making a career transition that delves deep into the psychology of its students. Davis-Cannon views identifying what is holding someone back as an integral first step in the job-search process.
"We talk about what you hate to do, what self-limiting beliefs you might have, what negative self-talk you might have, what personal history you're carrying with you, what losses you've had that you might need to grieve," Davis-Cannon said. "There are often tears. People go quite deep."
Davis-Cannon, a Mountain View resident, first had the idea for this course when she was going through a career transition herself. Her children had gone off to college, and her mother and aunt had died. Though she had an MBA from The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and about 20 years of corporate experience under her belt, she was uncertain about what she wanted to do.
She pored over job-search materials but found only the occasional "nugget of gold" that was helpful. When the Recession hit, she saw many people at a church group, Career Actions Ministry, who were dissatisfied with their current lines of work. She decided in 2009 to pull together those nuggets into a form that she could share with others.
The result was "Uncover Your Calling," a weekly course with two-hour meetings and extensive homework. The course is split into three, four-week modules in which Davis-Cannon asks her students to confront their shame and fear; identify values, strengths and skills; and then take significant action.
Davis-Cannon has taught this course to both men and women through Career Actions Ministry and from her own Mountain View office, where she also does private coaching. However, since she began offering this course at Deborah's Palm in 2011 (where she also leads a writing group), she has noticed that participants in the all-women sessions there bond quickly. She reflected that the attractive, cozy and safe environment of Deborah's Palm encourages that connection.
"I try to treat students like they have value, like they matter, like they deserve to have dreams, and they find that the other people in their lives don't always treat them that way," she said.
In addition to offering courses like Davis-Cannon's, Ritchey has brought an array of other services to Deborah's Palm to support women in transition or suffering from personal crises -- struggles that can be compounded by the pressure cooker of Silicon Valley, where the fast speed of life is "palpable" and money can be a nagging worry, she said.
"Women (here) are expected to do it all: They're expected to have kids, (and) they're expected to work," Ritchey said. "It's just a very competitive, intense environment."
To meet the needs of more women, last September Deborah's Palm launched an affordable/sliding scale program for counseling with the help of therapist Louise Compton. Previously, Deborah's Palm had referred women to a few marriage and family therapists (MFTs) in the community. However, these counselors charge market rates, which can be as high as $125 an hour.
"So many people that I've met would like to have counseling, but the biggest roadblock to that is usually finances," said Compton, who was licensed as an MFT in April 2013.
Compton became friends with Ritchey when they were both students seeking master's degrees at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont. Before and after graduating in 2009, she was mainly working with low-income people suffering from severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia. She worked for a year and a half at Momentum for Mental Health on California Avenue.
As Ritchey set out to open Deborah's Palm, Compton stayed in contact with her and eventually became more involved at the center, running a support group for women with depression and anxiety for a year. Once she received her license, she talked with Ritchey about offering on-site, one-on-one, sliding-scale counseling.
Even before meeting Ritchey, Compton remembered asking herself what kind of people she wanted to work with. Though she found her work with low-income populations rewarding, she always felt drawn to helping "women like (her)self," who can have "intense problems" bubbling underneath the surface.
"They seem like they have ... everything going for them; they seem like they are in a position where they don't have problems," she said. "It's very easy to pass over just regular people."
Today Compton has sessions with about five to 10 women per week in one of the back rooms of Deborah's Palm. The topics she discusses with women run the gamut from depression to anxiety, past trauma, relationships, work and addiction.
Per a policy suggested by Compton, Deborah's Palm only takes into account the patient's income, so that women can remain independent of a spouse if they choose to.
Despite the financial pressures of offering counseling on a sliding scale (which ranges from $50 to $100 per hour), it was important to Compton to offer the program, who had faced steep rates in seeking psychotherapy for herself earlier in life.
"We just had a will to do it," she said.
When asked what sets Deborah's Palm apart from other service providers in the area, Davis-Cannon said, "Well, the first thing is Katie. ... There's a warmth and a love about Katie that just sets the tone for the whole place."
That view was echoed by a chorus of women, who spoke glowingly about Ritchey's ability to listen, her gentleness, her protective nature and -- most of all -- her miraculous efforts in starting Deborah's Palm.
Ritchey traced her interest in social work back to her days at Jordan Middle School. Typing teacher Hugh Center, after whom the school later named its amphitheater, organized collections of toys, clothing and food leading up to the holidays. The students would then pile into a school bus with care packages and deliver them to farming communities in Gilroy, where families sometimes lived in corrugated metal shelters and children worked alongside their parents.
"It made such an impression on me," Ritchey said. "It was the first time I thought, 'There's needs out here, just a few miles from my house.'"
As Ritchey grew up, studied biology in college, worked in the pharmaceutical industry and raised her family in Portola Valley and Palo Alto, she always kept her hand in charity work. As a stay-at-home mom, she organized food drives and fundraisers. When her children were in elementary school, she started a program where students would learn about nonprofits and then take donations and meet the people those organizations were serving.
Then she experienced what she called "a collusion ... of really difficult life events," which pushed her to dedicate herself to human services and, particularly, to working with women. Her mother suffered a stroke in 1999, and Ritchey took care of her for four years as her health declined. She died in 2003. During that time she was herself diagnosed with breast cancer. She fought and beat the disease, but not without slogging through heavy-duty chemotherapy.
In the middle of this, her marriage deteriorated in an ugly fashion. She left the house with her youngest daughter in 2002 and began to forge a new life for herself.
Single and with her three children in college or college-bound, she had a world of possibilities before her. She tried working as a chaplain on a bone-marrow-transplant ward and dabbled in medical social work before heading to Notre Dame de Namur to earn a second bachelor's degree in human services and master's in clinical psychology.
For a senior project, she was asked to find a place in her community where she would like to work; that was when the idea of opening her own women's community center was firmly planted in her mind. She began voraciously reading books on starting a nonprofit and gathered her friends around her to form a board of directors. And most critically, she was able to use the money her mother had left her to buy the 555 Lytton Ave. property in 2006. After applying for a conditional-use permit and a period of remodeling, in which Ritchey said she ran out of money twice, Deborah's Palm opened in May 2010.
"I always love telling this story because I forget on the day to day how cool things dovetailed together," she said. "It was really quite something."
In addition to using her own funds, Ritchey has employed the normal range of methods to get and keep the nonprofit afloat: fundraisers, applying for grants, cultivating individual donors and charging some fees. She has labored, though, to make the center easily accessible and to keep as many programs as possible free.
Though Deborah's Palm pays a part-time bookkeeper, a graphic designer and a grant writer as independent contractors, Ritchey said that the lifeblood of the nonprofit is made up of volunteers; she is one herself.
About two years ago Jamileh Musa was faced with a series of mounting pressures. In addition to family problems and the attendant stresses of living in the Bay Area, she began to feel unfulfilled with her work at a jewelry gallery doing sales and buying, a position she had held for 10 years. At first she tried pushing these concerns aside, but eventually she decided to quit and look for something new.
"There was something inside me kinda calling for a change in lifestyle or a change in my goal or my vision," said Musa, who came to the U.S. from Jordan about 25 years ago to go to college.
Soon after leaving her job, she heard about Deborah's Palm and decided to stop by. On her second visit she met Ritchey, who listened to Musa's story attentively, expressed her sympathy and gave a few gentle suggestions.
"This is really what the whole idea behind Deborah's Palm is ... a place for women to come and not feel like you're the only one who is going through this, whatever it could be."
At that point, Musa decided to take part in the mentorship program at the center and was paired up with Nina Homnack. The two women got together once every two weeks for about two or three months. Musa found the relationship she built with Homnack "refreshing " -- a combination of the warmth of a friend or family member with the toughness of someone who would tell her the truth and hold her accountable.
Steadily Musa got in the swing of her new life. She took a few classes at Deborah's Palm, started covering a shift at the front desk, became a volunteer at the Cantor Arts Center and embarked on a second bachelor's degree in sociology from the College of San Mateo. She hopes to transfer to a nearby state school in the near future and later on, perhaps, enter a master's program.
Eventually Homnack told Musa that she didn't think they needed to meet for mentoring any longer, though they could, of course, stay in touch. Notwithstanding lingering ambiguities as to her future, Musa said she is taking pleasure from the search and learning to trust herself.
"I'm no longer looking for the answer. I'm enjoying the process."
Throughout all this, Musa has become invested in the mission and values of Deborah's Palm, so much so that she worked with Ritchey to develop a new role at the nonprofit of community outreach coordinator, in which she makes use of her sales and marketing skills.
Since she started in April, she has staffed booths at various public events in the area, visited other organizations and reached out to schools, generally sowing seeds in the community. She particularly hopes to draw more students and people from out of the country, who may be at Stanford for instance, to services at Deborah's Palm.
Musa's efforts are part of Ritchey's larger attempts to build awareness of Deborah's Palm in the Palo Alto area. From time to time, Deborah's Palm hosts film screenings at the Aquarius Theatre downtown. Earlier this summer, former State Assemblywoman Sally Lieber gave a talk on human trafficking and what can be done about it locally.
Currently Deborah's Palm is preparing for its largest public event of the year, its Fall Open House on Saturday, Aug. 16, at which both men and women can learn about the center's services and line-up of fall classes, as well as enjoy music, food and the house and grounds. Among other activities, members of the center's poetry group will read some of their latest work.
Though the various groups, classes and activities that Deborah's Palm offers serve to bring women in, the friendships they build keep them there and inspire them to become involved. Ritchey, as well as Davis-Cannon and others, remarked on the healing power of personal relationships, which more and more people seem to be missing in their lives.
"Facebook is one thing, a hug is another thing," Ritchey said. "Tactile, face-to-face communication is becoming lost, which is sad because people need to be with one another if they are hurting."
Though Ariza Valadao only began coming to Deborah's Palm a few months ago, she hopes to continue to develop deeper relationships with the women there, as well as to find an opportunity to share her experiences fighting for women's equality and rights in Brazil.
On her strolls around downtown lately, Valadao has often found her feet taking her down Lytton Avenue to Deborah's Palm, even when she knows there isn't something scheduled.
"I can't help it, I just walk in, even for a cup of coffee or to say 'hello' to whoever is there," Valadao said. "And you always find someone interesting over there to talk to."