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After 25 Years, Terri Allison Still Making a Difference at Storyteller Children’s Center

First as a board member and then as executive director, the stalwart leader has been a source of inspiration and determination

[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 second 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 Kenny Slaught.]

Twenty-five years ago, a concerned group of women noticed a trend in Santa Barbara: homeless families with small children spending the day on the streets until the shelters they were living in reopened every evening. These women wanted to help the families, but they didn’t know where to begin. So they turned to the Community Action Commission of Santa Barbara County, which led the effort to respond to the crisis. There they met Terri Allison, who had been recently promoted to director of child development.

Allison, herself a former preschool teacher, wanted to help. She, too, was worried about the children on the streets, so she helped write a grant asking for funds to provide childcare for homeless children while their parents looked for work. That grant helped start what would later become Storyteller Children’s Center, a preschool that has been supporting the needs of homeless children and their families ever since. Storyteller’s partnership with the Community Action Commission has evolved and remained strong over the years.

“In the beginning, we could only serve a few families and we had to set up and put away the entire school each night,” Allison remembered. “Once we got our own home, we were able to really start making a difference.”

Allison, who served as a Storyteller board member for a number of years before becoming the executive director in 2005, is seen by many as one of the key people who made Storyteller into the effective program it is today. Storyteller operates two schools and serves more than 100 families each year.

“What made Storyteller such a successful program from the beginning was the thoughtful and fiscally conservative board, and the long-term commitments of so many of the board's members,” said Roe Anne White, a member of Storyteller’s advisory board. “And none are as committed as Terri Allison.”

Under Allison’s leadership, Storyteller has established a collaborative relationship with CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation) to provide therapy and counseling services at the school to children and families in crisis on an ongoing and regular basis. Part of Storyteller’s job in preparing a child to be able to thrive in school, Allison says, is to help the family to become stable and productive.

“We’ve made a shift from offering care for children to a place that gives families access to the tools they need to build on their own strengths and make the choices that are best for them,” Allison said. “For many of our families, we are a catalyst for change in their lives and the lives of their children.”

Because working with children whose families are in crisis can be stressful, Allison also invests a lot of time and effort in professional development programs for the teachers, such as a program called Touchpoints, based on the research of renowned pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton of Boston.

Storyteller Children's Center executive director Terri Allison, left, with longtime board member Kenny Slaught and his wife, Elizabeth. (Storyteller Children's Center photo)
Storyteller Children's Center executive director Terri Allison, left, with longtime board member Kenny Slaught and his wife, Elizabeth. (Storyteller Children's Center photo)

“The training gave us a foundation in language to help us describe what we are doing and to strengthen our support of the children and families in a real and organic way,” she said. “We all have our own biases and challenges, but we have to figure out the best way to talk to the parents and listen to them. We need to develop a collaborative plan to support  them to help themselves.”

“We focus on relationships at Storyteller,” Allison explained. “The relationships between the referral agency, parents, the child, the teachers and the community are all important. This ensures we are helping each family uniquely manage and understand their situation versus reacting to it before any decisions are made.”

The Storyteller teachers appreciate Allison’s caring approach and see her as a source of inspiration.

“Terri’s day may be very stressful, but she always finds the time to talk to parents, join their meetings, call them over the phone — whatever they need that day,” said Lucia Torres, who has been teaching at Storyteller for more than 13 years. “Terri’s passion for Storyteller is amazing.”

Allison’s emphasis on a therapeutic approach toward families and professional development for teachers are two ingredients that help make Storyteller’s program different. But another initiative started by Allison aims to show that Storyteller’s approach is a successful one, as well: a longitudinal study with UC Santa Barbara's Gervirtz Graduate School of Education is tracking the progress of Storyteller graduates through third grade. Preliminary results show that most Storyteller children are better prepared for kindergarten than their peers.

Allison, who received her B.A. from Chico State University and her teaching credentials from UCSB, also graduated from the University of Massachusetts Boston Infant-Parent Mental Health Postgraduate Certificate Program and Fellowship. She has been married for 30 years to Rob Allison; their three children are Mikaila, 27, Emma, 25, and Will, 23.

Following in her mom’s footsteps, Emma also works in early childhood education.

“I think it’s amazing how devoted Mom is to the program," she said. "It’s incredible how she’s maintained and grown Storyteller, and also is always there for her family. She’s set a very good example for me to follow in my career.”

In addition to serving as a mentor for both the Storyteller teachers and her daughter, Allison also must spend a considerable amount of time working on fundraising, especially since 50 percent of Storyteller’s federal Head Start funding was cut earlier this year as a result of the federal budget sequestration. Donors and community members admire Allison as well for her hard work and determination.

“Terri is a total rock star,” said Randy Weiss, foundation officer for Union Bank. “She’s done an amazing job from the beginning in building a first-class program that is a model of care for local families in critical need.

"We’ve enjoyed a great legacy partnership with Storyteller that continues strongly with Union Bank, as we believe the family work they are doing, led by Terri, is so vital to our community.”

The best part about Allison is that despite all the difficult family situations she has seen during her years at Storyteller, she has never become jaded or cynical. She continues to be optimistic every day about the prospects for the homeless children and families who come to Storyteller.

“Storyteller is a place of hope for everybody who enters it,” Allison said. “It is the beginning of a new chapter for the families in our program and it has changed me for the better in more ways than I can count.”

Click here for more information about or to donate to Storyteller Children’s Center, or call Joya at 805.682.9585.

— Jenny Edwards and Julia Rodgers represent Storyteller Children's Center.

Related Stories in This Series

» Kenny Slaught to Be Honored at Storyteller Children’s Center 25th Anniversary Gala

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