New Beginnings Counseling Center
The New Beginnings Counseling Center includes about a dozen clinical supervisors and dozens more clinicians serving more than 150 clients per week. (New Beginnings Counseling Center photo)

[Noozhawk’s note: First in a series sponsored by the Hutton Parker Foundation.]

For more than 50 years, New Beginnings Counseling Center has provided nonprofit mental health services for all comers, regardless of income, insurance, race, color or creed, but never has its work been more important, nor more stressful, than in 2020.

“It’s heartbreaking and I feel compelled to help,” said Kristine Schwarz, who has served as New Beginnings’ executive director for nine years.

“There’s been a significant increase in the acuity across every aspect of the work we do: mental health disorder acuity; substance abuse acuity; trauma and the repercussions of that triggered over and over again. This work is so important.”

Founded as the Santa Barbara Night Clinic, the rebadged nonprofit organization has expanded to include about a dozen clinical supervisors and dozens more clinicians serving more than 150 clients per week.

In addition, it has developed one of the nation’s most successful Safe Parking Shelter and Rapid Rehousing Programs, which continues to expand. New Beginnings also offers services specifically for military veterans in need of support through its Supportive Services for Veteran Families Program.

There are anger-management group sessions, mindfulness groups, parenting groups and, most recently, coronavirus-isolation support groups, food distribution efforts and collaboration with Project Room Key, a state-led program for moving the unhoused into hotels and motels.

New Beginnings had already been developing a tele-health program in partnership with Cottage Health and Zoom video communications when COVID-19 burst onto the scene earlier this year. As a result, several of its programs were already online, or able to make a smooth transition to meet social distancing requirements while continuing to serve clients’ needs.

“What makes us unique is we’re really here to meet the changing needs of our vulnerable community members,” New Beginnings development manager Michael Berton told Noozhawk.

Kristine Schwarz

New Beginnings Counseling Center executive director Kristine Schwarz has seen a significant increase in demand for mental health services. “It’s tough because the more people see our impact, the more people want us to do,” she says. (New Beginnings Counseling Center photo)

“We’ve seen a really large uptick in people reaching out for counseling services and all of our programs. Housing insecurity is really a large issue, as is anxiety in general.”

One of the leanest nonprofit organizations in Santa Barbara County, 90 percent of donations to New Beginnings go directly into programing.

“We maintain low overhead, and a lot of the money goes directly back into the community,” Berton said. “For a donor looking to make an impact with their money, we’re a top choice.”

New Beginnings’ service delivery is capped only by funding that heavily depends upon grants and support from a variety of foundations.

Supporters range from The Towbes Foundation to the Henry Mayo Newhall Foundation and the Coeta and Donald Barker Foundation. Other support comes from the COVID-19 Joint Response Effort for Santa Barbara County led by the Santa Barbara Foundation, United Way of Santa Barbara County, Hutton Parker Foundation and members of The Foundation Roundtable.

Staff members like New Beginnings clinical director Crystal Ramirez juggle work for the programs as well as their own practices, careers and home lives. Ramirez runs her own practice and teaches at Antioch University Santa Barbara and Pacifica Graduate Institute.

New Beginnings Counseling Center

The New Beginnings Counseling Center is one of Santa Barbara County’s leanest nonprofit organizations, with 90 percent of its donations going directly into programing.

(New Beginnings Counseling Center photo)

“There’s so much help our community needs, and it’s important meaningful work,” said Ramirez, who has spent 15 years focusing on community mental health. “I feel like it’s a moral obligation to help other people who are vulnerable, who don’t have a voice and need help.

“We’re here, available, still taking new clients, and really focusing on reducing barriers to accessing services.”

The need to erase any stigma around seeking therapy is long overdue.

“Humans need support from other people, and the nature of modern life is to have us be very isolated and overly independent,” Ramirez explained. “With so many people struggling, we’re forced to see we need more interdependence in our daily lives.

“When we get advice from friends or family, there’s a lot of judging going on, but therapists are nonjudgemental, have a lot of resources, information, compassion. They’re not going to say, ‘You’re doing it wrong.’”

Ramirez was drawn to New Beginnings by its mission, and its executive director.

“Kristine is tireless and so passionate and so committed,” she said. “It’s so inspirational to work with other people who are giving their all every day, even when we’re all impacted by COVID and everyone is still working as hard as they can to make sure people in our community who are less fortunate, suffering more, and suffering a lot have someone to go to for help.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide stay-at-home order on March 19 brought a new twist, and New Beginnings flexed with it. All counselors made the transition not only to video sessions, but working from their homes.

“It was a huge restructuring and building of infrastructure to comply with all the legal and ethical guidelines as therapists, and establishing norms for the new workplace,” Ramirez explained.

“Same with establishing safe situations for clients.”

Imagine a child locked down by COVID-19 with a large family seeking a quiet place for a therapy session, the extra support for families struggling with the abrupt closure of school and child care, work losses and financial stressors.

“There’s so many layers to the work that we do,” Ramirez said. “We’re really seeing an increase in request for service because so many people are under stressors that are unpredictable and not the kind of stressors they’ve been under before.

“And it’s ongoing.”

She acknowledged that some people have adjusted seamlessly, but others are really struggling.

“We don’t know what so-called normal is or should look like, so we’re sort of reimagining with each individual what works, what normal looks like for them while making sure each person is safe and stable,” she said.

While the need is great throughout Santa Barbara County, and the Safe Parking Shelter and Rapid Rehousing Program is expanding to Lompoc and Santa Maria, all New Beginnings growth has been exercised in moderation.

“I’ve taken great care to expand the agency over time in a way that doesn’t overextend us, but it’s tough because the more people see our impact, the more people want us to do,” Schwarz said.

“But we need the capacity that comes from the cumulative development of unrestricted funds, and that’s been reduced significantly because of COVID.”

Like nonprofit organizations everywhere, annual fundraising events had to be reimagined, redesigned and redeveloped for 2020.

“People give to the areas where they personally see the need,” Schwarz noted. “There’s a significant need with families home with children. I see it with clients. I see it with staff.

“But while there’s a lot of need, there are also a lot of people who have lost jobs, and the funds just aren’t there.”

Institutions like the Veterans Administration provided funding specifically designated for placing medically vulnerable unhoused military veterans into hotels and motels at a cost of $70,000 to $80,000 per month, Schwarz said.

“Most of it is covered, but not all of it,” she added.

And more programming means more work for New Beginnings’ budget-limited staff.

“We have staff working 50 and 60 hours,” Schwarz said. “We’re the agency that gets into the trenches and gets the work done, and the impact we have on people’s individual lives as well as our community as a whole is immeasurable.”

New Beginnings always welcomes cash donations, but specific in-kind donations can also be priceless, from beds for newly housed families to low-rent or rent-free office space once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

Click here for more information about New Beginnings Counseling Center. Click here to make an online donation.

Noozhawk contributing writer Jennifer Best can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

Support System

New Beginnings exists largely due to grants and other funding tools from a variety of programs and foundations, including:

» Coeta and Donald Barker Foundation

» James S. Bower Foundation

» John L. Carleton Foundation

» Cottage Health

» Roy & Ida Eagle Foundation

» Crawford Idema Foundation

» Disabled Veterans National Foundation

» Kind World Foundation

» Henry Mayo Newhall Foundation

» Hutton Parker Foundation

» Herbert and Gertrude Latkin Charitable Foundation

» Lehrer Family Foundation

» McCune Foundation

» Mosher Foundation

» MUFG Union Bank

» William Neil Foundation

» Santa Barbara Foundation

» Mark and Dorothy Smith Family Foundation

» St. Francis Foundation

» Walter J. and Holly O. Thompson Foundation

» The Towbes Foundation

» Volentine Foundation

» Edwin Jeanne Woods Family Foundation

» Williams-Corbett Foundation

» Wood-Claeyssens Foundation

» Zegar Family Fund