Neighbors Helping Neighbors

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Photo by Mariana Schulze
A volunteer serves meals at the group lunch.

California’s Ojai Valley is a luxury getaway for southern Californians, who flock to the Valley’s gorgeous spa, health and spiritual retreats. Hemmed in by the Topa Topa Mountains, the Valley was originally home to the Chumash Indians and is said to have mystical qualities. Today the stunningly beautiful area is home to boutique hotels, a robust farmers market, music festivals and New Age shops.

Yet away from the $3,000-a-night penthouses and custom spa therapy sessions, the Ojai Valley struggles with increasing rates of poverty, joblessness and homelessness, due in part to the rise of its high-end tourism industry. Despite its reputation as a tourist destination, however, the Ojai Valley is also home to a tightly connected community, where large swaths of the population come together to volunteer, donate or engage with a single organization: HELP of Ojai.

Community HELP

Founded in the mid-1970s, HELP of Ojai is a bustling nonprofit with a $1.5-million annual budget made up of a combination of grants, its own revenue-generating operations (it runs the town’s biggest thrift store, to name one) and generous contributions from the community, which clearly understands how vital the program is to the well-being of the entire Valley. The community donates about 40 percent of the organization’s overall funding, raising about $500,000 each year — significant in an area with only around 25,000 residents. HELP of Ojai also welcomes more than 250 volunteers each year, which means more than 10 percent of Valley residents give time to this one organization.

“People take it seriously how to keep HELP of Ojai healthy,” says Terri Wolfe, HELP of Ojai’s executive director, who has worked with the group since 2009. “They understand the concept of supporting basic needs, of neighbors helping neighbors through service, financial support and also word of mouth — being the eyes and ears out there making sure we’re taking care of the most vulnerable.”

It seems nearly everyone in the Valley interacts with HELP in some way — whether as a donor, a volunteer, a client or family member, or simply by helping alert the organization when a senior, teen or family needs assistance. “People call us all the time,” Wolfe says. “It’s almost like a Valley-wide neighborhood watch. If they’re concerned about a family with children or a senior, they’ll call us and we’ll go out and make a house call and see how we can help … It’s a great partnership between residents and an organization like HELP of Ojai. It’s very straightforward, and they know who to call. It just flows and works really well.”

One key reason HELP of Ojai is able to interact with the community so effectively is its broad spectrum of services. “HELP of Ojai is the only full-time basic needs nonprofit in the Ojai Valley,” Wolfe says. “So what that means for us is that we do a lot of things. We have a breadth of services that spans food, shelter and access to health care for families with school-aged children and seniors. Those are our two focus groups and those are our three focus areas.”

Social Seniors

Ojai is home to a large number of seniors — the community has the oldest average population and highest per capita senior population in its county — and many of them are low-income. HELP of Ojai’s mission is to help keep seniors living in their homes, healthily, for as long as possible. Part of that means providing meals via home-delivery service and the congregate meals offered to the “Lunch Bunch,” seniors who take part in the daily Senior Nutrition Program lunches on the HELP campus.

For those who need it, HELP of Ojai offers transportation to and from the daily community lunch, as well as to other locations. The HELP bus takes seniors to doctor and physical therapy appointments, to the grocery store or anywhere else they may need to go. “We provide door-to-door transportation for anything they want to do in the Valley,” Wolfe says. “The majority is health-related…but then we also want to give them the ability to get out and be active and participate in other things that bring them health and joy — to go out to dinner with friends or out to lunch with a group. The ride program is probably one of our most popular and highly sought. Last year we provided about 10,000 rides.”

Seniors also participate in an array of physical, educational and social programs offered by HELP of Ojai, designed to promote socializing and activity. More than 26 classes are offered each month, ranging from exercise programs to college courses by professors from nearby California State University Channel Islands. Each course is six to eight weeks and offers a college-level curriculum, minus the homework and tests. Classes tend to include 40 to 50 students and cover a range of material, but often focus on history.

For seniors in need of more advanced care — those with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or severe physical limitations — HELP offers an adult day-care service, Oak Tree House, where trained staff and volunteers coordinate physical, mental/memory and social activities including discussion groups, life review and peer counseling, along with relaxation and garden strolls. While this time is certainly beneficial for the participants, it also provides a respite for these patients’ home caregivers, often patients’ children who need to work during the day or aging spouses who need a rest from the strenuous demands of caring for another person.

Help of Ojaihelps enable caregivers to keep loved ones at home for much longer than they may otherwise be able. One caregiver wrote to the organization: “Oak Tree House has made it possible for me to keep my mom at home. Without the reprieve I get while she is there I would not have the capacity to continue to care for her on my own — she would have to be in a care facility at this point. I believe the social stimulation my mom gets by attending Oak Tree House has slowed the progression of her Alzheimer’s disease.”

Family Matters

HELP of Ojai’s work also focuses on low-income families, especially those with school-aged children, through its Community Assistance Program. The primary focus of this program is to keep families in appropriate housing, working on a case-management basis to assist with budgeting, job assistance, food accessibility via HELP’s food pantry, and health-care access. They also offer microgrants and microloans to assist with short-term financial needs such as repairing a car so a parent can get to work, or assisting with deposits on housing.

Housing is a particular challenge. As the Ojai Valley economy has become more focused on tourism, housing has become a major crisis. Non-residents buy up inexpensive housing stock and transform it into vacation getaways and AirBnBs, pricing out residents and reducing the isolated Valley’s affordable housing options. In one recent example, a family made up of a single father and three teen daughters lost housing after the father lost his job in the oil industry. The family was selected for HELP’s transitional house, a temporary housing situation available as part of the group’s focus on keeping families with children in housing. As they live in the transition house, the father has worked with HELP of Ojai toward regaining full-time employment while saving money from a part-time job and raising his daughters. Meanwhile, the entire family volunteers at HELP as a way of giving back.

Community Caring

Wolfe says one of the things that makes HELP of Ojai particularly effective is its wide range of services. Oftentimes in larger communities, nonprofits specialize in just one slice of the care needs of an individual. “We do so many things all along a spectrum, it’s easy to one-stop shop here,” Wolfe says. “What we’re finding, especially with seniors or low-income heads of household, is that it’s so complex to navigate the nonprofit world. You may have three or four needs and need to go to three or four agencies to get support. One thing we feel is most helpful is here they can call one person in any of our nine programs and that person will know how to connect them with the entire system. That may not sound like a big deal, but it is. The majority of folks we’re dealing with are overwhelmed by the conditions they find themselves in on a daily basis. Even to reach out may be beyond their capabilities, so only having to reach out once is a big benefit when you have people who are stressed beyond function.”

In the end, Wolfe believes HELP of Ojai’s model works so well because of its deep ties throughout the community. The people of Ojai can watch out for one another, knowing a resource exists that can offer support in times of need.

And, despite limited funds, its connections with the community enable HELP of Ojai to understand and prioritize the entire area’s most pressing needs, using money more effectively and efficiently than many larger service providers may be able. In the end, Wolfe says, community-supported programs like HELP of Ojai are a “need to have,” not an “it’s nice to have,” within the community. “They say in this community, ‘We do not know what would happen if we didn’t have HELP of Ojai.’”

Vivacious Volunteers

HELP of Ojai owes much of its success to its robust team of volunteers, who come from all across the community and include current and former clients. The volunteer program began in the 1960s as part of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) launched by President Lyndon B. Johnson in an effort to engage military veterans in community service. Now no longer attached to that program, the HELP volunteer program has “taken on a life of its own,” Wolfe says. “People want to volunteer with friends. They want to be engaged in the community; they want to give back.”

Volunteers work in an array of programs, offering everything from reading and talking to fitness classes and counseling, and they often bring friends, family and neighbors with them. “It’s a collegial, collaborative group of people who share ideas with us — a friend who may be able to make a great contribution as a volunteer, for example,” Wolfe says. “They want to work together with the same schedule and in the same environment. It’s almost like a social club. There are gatherings and parties. It’s a way to socialize and stay engaged.”