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UpValley Family Center staff

In September 2016, the staff at the UpValley Family Centers posed outside their office on Spring Street in St. Helena. They are, from left, Adriana Montanez, youth program specialist; Loralyn Taylor, program coordinator and her dog, Apollo; Indira Lopez, program director; Jenny Ocon, executive director; Norma Ferriz, operations director; Blanca Dixon, immigration program coordinator; Cristina Avina, family services coordinator; and Yuliana Moreno, community liaison.

David Stoneberg, Star

Our Upvalley communities, hit hard by recent wildfires, are now thankfully on the path to recovery. The recovery has certainly been made stronger by our local community. So many individuals and businesses stepped up in unique and powerful ways and helped out wherever they could. Over the past months our offices have been overcome – both by requests for help and by offers of assistance. We feel a deep responsibility to provide essential services to those in need, and we have not done it alone. On countless occasions our phone has rung, or our office door has opened, or a hand-written note has been received – all people reaching out with generous and full hearts.

Since October, we have helped over 450 households with emergency assistance for fire-related losses and hardship due to reduced work hours or a lost job – leading to requests for help paying rent, utilities, food and medical bills. Our assistance has ranged from finding a new place to live, to translation help to replace lost documents, to helping individuals access financial or social service assistance. The devastation of the fires has taken the biggest toll on families who were already living in precarious conditions due to low wages, unstable employment, overcrowded housing, or immigration challenges.

One woman we helped lived and worked at a guest ranch in the hills. During the fires, she helped evacuate all of the guests. By the time everyone was evacuated, the fire was so close that she had no time to get any of her own belongings. She fled only with her pet, barely making it out alive. Her work and home burned down, and she has struggled to find a place to live. She can’t stay with her family because their apartment won’t accept pets. We have worked with her to find housing and employment, and we connected her to mental health services because of the stress she is under.

This story is like many others in our community – and demonstrates the need for greater pathways to economic stability. A natural disaster is challenging for everyone. For workers employed in seasonal jobs, in a community that lacks sufficient affordable housing, the climb to recovery is much steeper. Prior to the fires, we surveyed 600 of our clients about their financial health – trying to better understand how we might help them towards greater prosperity. In that survey, at a time when housing and jobs were less impacted, one in three people said they regularly lose sleep over finances.

The UpValley Family Centers is committed to helping families move towards a more stable future. One way we achieve this is through our Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) Program. We provide free tax preparation for low-income households, in English and Spanish, with financial coaching and strategies for saving. Tax time can be critical for low income households.

According to the national organization Prosperity Now, tax refunds can account for 30 percent or more of a family’s annual income. Last year, we served 601 households, saving families the cost of having their taxes prepared elsewhere, and bringing back $810,000 in refunds – an average of $1,348 per family, which comes directly back into our community. We plan to increase our reach and offer even more economic success services in 2018. And with the new tax laws on the horizon for the 2018 tax year, we will continue to be a trusted resource for accurate and timely information.

Our free VITA services will be available starting on Jan. 22. We’ll be open evenings and Saturdays. We also continue to offer assistance to victims of the wildfires who have not fully recovered. To make an appointment, call: (707) 965-5010 or email info@upvalleyfamilycenters.org. More information about our services can be found on our website: upvalleyfamilycenters.org.

Crises like the recent wildfires have a way of making us remember what we are most thankful for —- our loved ones, a safe place to live, a stable job, the natural environment, and our community of neighbors who make this place special. The compassionate support of our community strengthens our ability to offer essential resources when people need it most. As important, it strengthens our ability to address deeper challenges so that working families will have increased resiliency in the long run.

Editor’s Note: Jenny Ocón, MSW, is executive director of the UpValley Family Centers, with offices in St. Helena and Calistoga.

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