Tona Wakefield is the recipient of the 2013 Community Champion Words to Deeds Paradigm Award.
The Santa Barbara County Jail discharge planner, an employee of Casa Esperanza, has worked with mentally ill and homeless inmates since 2009. Sheriff Bill Brown presented Wakefield with her prestigious award last Thursday at a ceremony in Sacramento.
The award was one of only six presented by the Forensic Mental Health Association of California at an event hosted by that organization and the California State Association of Counties. The awards recognize leaders who champion progress and positive change in the forensic mental health system.
Other honorees included Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Stephen Manley, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, San Francisco County Deputy Public Defender Jennifer Johnson, Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg and Yolo County Supervisor and retired District 8 Assemblywoman Helen Thomson.
Sheriff Brown said Wakefield’s award is well-deserved.
“This is a challenging population to work with, but in many instances Tona has been able to gain trust, build bridges and create hope where none existed before,” he said. “Her positive outlook, can-do attitude and exceptional work ethic have earned her the respect of homeless and mentally ill offenders, colleagues and members of the community alike.”
Wakefield was hired in 2009 as part of a program to help homeless inmates from being sent back on the streets when they are released from jail. It’s estimated that 30 to 40 percent of homeless inmates suffer from mental illness. As a jail discharge planner, Wakefield helps inmates find and sustain permanent housing when they are released. She also works closely with the Sheriff’s Treatment Program and other service providers to ensure that inmates are connected with important recovery services such as substance abuse and mental health treatment.
Wakefield said she is appreciative of the recognition.
“I want to thank Sheriff Brown for nominating me for the award and those I work with in the jail for accepting me,” she said. “I am grateful for the opportunity to work with inmates, to educate their families and help us all recover from the devastating loss we feel when, drugs, alcohol and untreated mental illness take our family and friends.”
Prior to working with inmates, Wakefield was a family advocate for Santa Barbara County’s Mental Health Association. She has served on the county’s Advisory Board on Drug and Alcohol Problems and as a member of the Criminal Justice Task Force and Restorative Policing Task Group.
Since 2003, Words to Deeds has provided a unique forum for criminal justice and mental health leaders to develop strategies and collaborations for decriminalizing mental illness.
— Kelly Hoover is a public information officer for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department.