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For 20 years, UpValley Family Centers' services help Calistoga, St. Helena communities

For 20 years, UpValley Family Centers' services help Calistoga, St. Helena communities

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The services of the UpValley Family Centers, with offices in St. Helena and Calistoga, are needed now more than ever.

When asked to compare the need from 20 years ago, when the Calistoga Family Center was founded, to today, Kristin Georges said, “I think, sadly, we are really experiencing a lot of the same issues, although housing might not have been as difficult” in the past as it is today. There are a lot of people in need, having trouble with paying bills, paying rent and finding and keeping jobs, and realizing their jobs were cyclical, with restaurants closing and others opening, she added.

In the most recent Community Impact Report,from 2018, Jenny Ocon, executive director of the UpValley Family Centers, writes, “Our programs and serves are needed now more than ever. In the face of growing income inequality, lack of affordable housing, harsh policies impacting immigrant families and increased stress and anxiety among teens and older adults, UpValley Family Centers is redoubling our efforts to ensure that people have the resources and connections they need to thrive.”

She adds, “In everything we do, we are guided by these core principles: trust, dignity, respect and cultural sensitivity, equity and collaborative action.”

The UpValley Family Centers’ services and programs can be broken into four broad categories: Economic success; community and civic engagement; children, youth and schools; and family and senior wellness.

A dozen people serve on the board of directors, including Georges, who was appointed president on July 1, and Karen Cakebread, who has served on the board for the past four years. Ocon has been executive director since 2014. In an interview last week, Ocon said, “There are pressures on families right now because of various immigration policy issues. There have always been challenges, but they seem more extreme now, causing more of an anxiety now.”

When the UpValley Family Centers began offering immigration services Ocon said, “We had to do a lot of outreach to encourage people to sign up to become U.S. citizens, in part, because they didn’t know we were offering the services. Also, there wasn’t the urgency as there is now, because of so many changes with immigration policies. We don’t have to do that much outreach anymore. We have a lot of people just coming in and seeking the services.”

Today, Georges serves as president of the groups’ board of directors. Her life has gone full circle as she first served on the St. Helena Family Center board in 2007 and later was the executive director of the family center. Six years ago, Georges also served on the committee that merged the similar Calistoga and St. Helena family centers.

Beginnings in Calistoga

The groups’ 20th anniversary is a big milestone for Ocon, who said the groups began in 1999 in Calistoga. “We started through a grant from the state, called Healthy Start, which made grants available to local schools to provide health and wellness services for families on elementary school campuses,” Ocon said. It was based at the Calistoga Elementary School and got the wide community support it needed to be successful. “The community created a nonprofit (organization), incorporating in 2002,” Ocon said.

Three years later, in St. Helena, a group of local residents were interested in having services available for families in town, as opposed to going to Napa. Ocon said the group saw and liked the model of what was happening in Calistoga, and collaborated with them to establish the St. Helena Family Center.

“The two organizations were seeing the same needs and providing the same services, so by the time we merged, in 2014, I feel it made a lot of sense to merge, because of the type of work both were doing,” Ocon said. She added, it made sense to streamline the administrative pieces, “so there could be more programs in the community.”

In 2014, when the Calistoga and St. Helena family centers became the UpValley Family Centers, the budget was $1.2 million and there were 13 people on staff. Today, the budget has grown to $2.8 million and there are 24 staff members.

As the nonprofit has grown, it has offered more services and it has allowed its staff members to get specialized, professional training. Before the merger, there was not an immigration program; today, Blanca Dixon is an accredited representative by the Department of Justice. Ocon said it is not the UVFC that gets the credit – it is their ability to partner with other organizations to make the services available in the community.

The 2018 Community Impact Report indicates that 338 people were assisted with immigration applications, consultations and information in a year. The report states in the last five years, more than 1,000 people were naturalized as new citizens, thanks to the countywide Citizenship Legal Services coalition.

Another example is Cristina Avina, who is accredited in the Positive Parenting Program, which helps parents with children of all ages. “As a mom herself, she gets the challenges all of us face from time to time,” Ocon said. “Having an evidence based program, having the training and collaborating with organizations has allowed us to offer a different level of service,” she adds.

Community volunteers

Ocon mentions another significant aspect of the UVFC – its number of local, community volunteers who are involved. “That’s been an area that’s growing quite a bit,” she said. For example, in St. Helena, there is a tutoring program that’s offered in partnership with the local schools. In both Calistoga and St. Helena, the VITA program volunteers offer free tax preparation services, which is held each tax season. “Last May, we had a celebration of all our volunteers and we had 160 volunteers just in the last year, helping us out with things. It was amazing to me when we put this list together,” Ocon said.

Cakebread first learned of the UpValley Family Centers programs in the wake of the 2015 Valley Fire, when Calistoga became an evacuation center for those in Southern Lake County. A UVFC team went to the fairgrounds to help the people gathered there, handing out gas cards, so people could get home, and serving as a help desk.

“That was my first knowledge of the family center and I realized all the services that they provide for a community that needs it. My heart lies in getting engaged in organizations that address people’s basic needs: a roof over your head, food on the table, medical care. That’s where I like to be,” she said.

Cakebread calls The UpValley Family Centers “an amazing organization,” adding, “There are people who work for me, who work multiple jobs just trying to make ends meet. Whatever we can do to help bridge that struggle, it is really important for the health and happiness of the community.”

You may reach David Stoneberg at 967-6800 or editor@sthelenastar.com

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St. Helena Star Editor

David Stoneberg is the editor of the St. Helena Star, an award-winning weekly newspaper. Prior to joining the Star in 2006, he worked for the Lake County Record-Bee, the Clear Lake Observer American, the Middletown Times Star and The Weekly Calistogan.

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