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There were plenty of reasons to consolidate the St. Helena and Calistoga family centers, but it was troubling to see the new Up Valley Family Centers part ways with two former executive directors.

We’d always been impressed with Sara Cakebread (St. Helena) and Victoria Li (Calistoga), who understood the needs of their respective communities and possessed strong leadership and outreach skills.

Yet after meeting the newly hired executive director, Jenny Ocon, we’re confident she has the experience and the know-how to lead the Up Valley Family Centers without giving either community short shrift.

Time will tell whether consolidating the centers will really improve services and boost fundraising. Ocon and board President Kristen Georges said it will, and they believe an assessment — conducted this year with input from clients, donors, community leaders and the general public — will show the family centers are stronger together than apart.

While a nonprofit has no obligation to be open with the public, we encourage the Up Valley Family Centers to be as transparent as possible in demonstrating why consolidation was the right move. Public involvement will lend the assessment credibility and build up good will, which the nonprofit will be able to draw upon in the years ahead.

While we didn’t like saying goodbye to Cakebread and Li, we understand why the newly consolidated board — which has equal representation from St. Helena and Calistoga — opted for a fresh leader without a history in either community. And based on first impressions, they couldn’t have done much better than Ocon.

A Vallejo resident, Ocon was previously executive director of the San Rafael-based Parent Services Project, where she oversaw programs similar to the ones offered by our local family centers.

After just three weeks on the job, she seems to have a good grasp of the issues facing Upvalley families, and the ways in which St. Helena and Calistoga differ. For example, Calistoga seniors are much more dependent on their family center than their St. Helena counterparts, who have easier access to the Rianda House Senior Activity Center, which serves both communities.

But Ocon understands that despite differences like that, the core needs are similar in both communities. She and Georges said the merger will make it easier to take a program that’s working in one city and replicate it in the other.

Perhaps most important, Ocon understands how to obtain the grants that provide the majority of funding for the Up Valley Family Centers. One of the biggest supposed advantages of the merger is that a larger organization will be able to compete for larger grants, so Ocon’s fundraising skills will be crucial.

Ocon will split her time evenly between Calistoga and St. Helena, which should be welcome news to anyone who worried the consolidation would favor one city over the other.

Best of all, clients won’t notice any changes. The same staffs are in place at the same locations, 1500 Cedar St. in Calistoga and 1440 Spring St. in St. Helena. Any changes will be made methodically, with the intent of improving services, not just forcing the St. Helena center to do things the way they’re done in Calistoga, or vice versa.

With Ocon at the helm, there’s every reason to believe the consolidation will result in creative synergy, improved efficiency and eligibility for bigger grants — with the ultimate goal of providing more and better services for local families.


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