[Noozhawk's note: Storyteller Children’s Center, a preschool for homeless and at-risk children in Santa Barbara, is celebrating its 25th anniversary. This is the third in a three-part series chronicling the story of some of the people who have contributed to Storyteller’s success over the years. Click here for a related article on Terri Allison. Click here for a related article on Kenny Slaught.]
Four dynamic and well-connected community volunteers have joined forces this year to chair a 25th anniversary celebration gala for Storyteller Children’s Center, a preschool for homeless and at-risk children in Santa Barbara. The women — Marisa Grimes, Kristin Linehan, Tiffany Foster and Kim Blankenhorn — all served as past Storyteller gala chairwomen over the years, and their expertise has helped Storyteller raise a record amount of financial sponsorship for the sold-out gala that will take place Oct. 11 at Bacara Resort & Spa.
This spring, just as planning for the 25th anniversary gala got under way, Storyteller received crushing news: because of budgets cuts under the federal sequestration, half of its Head Start funding would be cut, for a total of $115,000 a year. All of sudden, there was added pressure to make the gala a huge success to help make up the shortfall. Although some people might shy away under those circumstances, these four women were up for the challenge.
“We believe in Storyteller,” said Linehan, a former Storyteller board president. “We’re in awe of all the great work being done there. It’s so gratifying to see how Storyteller is impacting the lives of vulnerable children.”
The gala chairs represent different eras in the history of Storyteller; while Grimes and Linehan were involved near the beginning, Foster and Blankenhorn represent a newer generation of leadership. Foster is the current Storyteller board president and Blankenhorn is a board member. In building this year’s 25th anniversary gala committee, the four women invited all the former gala chairs from previous years to join them on the committee, and all agreed.
“We all realized we were coming together for this amazing cause,” said Grimes, a former Storyteller board member who spearheaded the very first fundraising gala. “Everyone wanted to help.”
Storyteller Children’s Center was established in 1988, after a concerned group of women noticed an increasing number of homeless families living on the streets. The families had no safe and reliable place for their young children to go while they looked for work, making their already desperate situation worse. In the beginning, Storyteller used a parking lot at the old Transition House to run a half-day preschool program. Each day, the Storyteller teachers had to use a movable fence to create a small play area for the children; each night, they had to return all toys and learning materials to a storage shed. But the children thrived, and it was clear Storyteller was beginning to make a difference in their lives.
By 1991, Storyteller had established its own nonprofit status and was accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The next year, First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara, 2101 State St., offered its multipurpose room to the preschool free of charge. For eight years, Storyteller operated in the room, which was a big improvement from the previous cramped and temporary quarters. Finances were still tight, however, and board members had to pass the hat at board meetings so Storyteller could pay its bills.
“We had to figure out some way to make some money for the kids,” Linehan recalled. “We organized the first event sitting around Marisa’s kitchen table. We begged and borrowed anything we could find — it was so much work, and we all had young children of our own then.”
The first gala, held at fellow board member Kenny Slaught’s house, was a bare bones event.
“I think we strung up some lights and I remember cutting out paper stars,” Linehan said.
Slaught, Storyteller’s longest-serving board member, will be honored at this year’s gala for his loyal and generous support of the preschool.
But the money they raised that year and subsequent years helped stabilize Storyteller’s budget woes, enabling the organization to start planning for its future. Grimes and Linehan continued to work on many more galas after the first one before moving on to other community work.
In May 2000, Storyteller moved to the old parsonage across the parking lot from the church. The children and their families could now feel safe and secure in a warm, homey atmosphere. But the waiting list kept getting longer and longer until it was time to expand again. When an existing preschool on De la Vina Street came up for sale in 2007, The Orfalea Foundation generously bought the property, and leased it to Storyteller rent-free for 10 years. Its support was a key factor in Storyteller being able to double the number of children it served.
Today, Storyteller provides full-time, tuition-free preschool, healthy meals, on-site therapy for developmental delays, vision and dental screenings as well as parent education classes to more than 100 families a year at two locations. Even after the expansion, however, there is still a long waiting list, which makes the cuts to the Head Start funding even more difficult for Storyteller.
With almost 500 people expected to attend, this year’s 25th anniversary event will be much bigger and fancier than the first gala Grimes and Linehan planned around a kitchen table. But the focus is still the same.
“The funding is so critical,” Linehan said. “This isn’t just a fad or a fun party. The goal is still the same — we need to raise money for these kids.”
Click here for more information about or to donate to Storyteller Children’s Center, or call Joya at 805.682.9585.
Related Stories in This Series
» After 25 Years, Terri Allison Still Making a Difference at Storyteller Children’s Center