Ben Romo: Today I’m excited to interview my friend and “hero, Dean Palius,” executive director of Santa Ynez Valley People Helping People.

Dean Palius: It’s a tremendous “honor” to be interviewed by you, Ben. So big, in fact, that I invited my colleague, Arcelia Sención, our director of health care and social services, to share the glory with me and to keep it from going to my head.

BR: Welcome to you both! People Helping People is dedicated to improving the lives of men, women and children in the Santa Ynez Valley, Los Alamos and the surrounding communities. You address emergency and basic needs through comprehensive integrated family and individual support services.

That’s a big job. What does that look like for children 0-5 and their families?

DP: PHP’s philosophy is to give families and individuals a “hand up” to achieve self-sufficiency by integrating services for infants, children and adults into a “one-stop shop” with multiple neighborhood access points.

Clients can make a single contact with a family services advocate at a local school in order to receive any of PHP’s 18 program and services. These range from basic needs services such as our food program, homelessness prevention and utility assistance to counseling, home visits, parenting education and much more.

Last year more than half of our 800 referrals and linkages were for basic needs services. Because we believe in comprehensive support, PHP assigns a family service advocate to work with families whose children are enrolled in the state preschool in Santa Ynez given their very low income status and attendant risk factors, especially for young children.

Arcelia Sención: These types of support affect participants for the long term. We see stronger family units with improved communications skills, better knowledge of developmental stages and healthier parent child relationships.

Addressing basic needs establishes a foundation for reduced trauma and adverse early childhood experiences. Our evaluations of participating parents show, on average, a 30 percent improvement in family communications skills and a 25 percent increase in emotional well-being.

A young girl helps with the groceries at the Santa Ynez Valley People Helping People’s biweekly food program.
A young girl helps with the groceries at the Santa Ynez Valley People Helping People’s biweekly food program. (Santa Ynez Valley People Helping People photo)

BR: Being physically and emotionally healthy makes day-to-day parenting so much easier.  I admire that PHP works to help adults build a toolbox of strategies to address parenting challenges. What is the biggest challenge facing the families you serve?

DP: Affordable housing. Clients continue to pay up to two-thirds of monthly income for rent, leaving them very vulnerable to financial crisis. Evaluations show that 33 percent of clients report “housing instability” as well as a negative home environment.

AS: We do really want people to have the tools they need. People are often surprised that we provide student and family counseling at four primary schools and the high school in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Here’s a recent example (names changed) of our wraparound services. Mrs. Lopez lives in Buellton with her husband and two daughters, ages 7 and 3.  She and her husband are both employed.

Mrs. Lopez learned about the Family Resource Center (FRC) located at her daughter’s school through a flier. She was apprehensive about seeking help when she called the FRC. She had never asked for help and took pride that all of her family members had private insurance.

At the initial visit with PHP’s family service advocate, Mrs. Lopez reported that her 3-year-old daughter, Mary, required dental treatment, and that the family had been unable to save $1,800 to meet the deductible. She needed financial assistance.

Mary was present at the appointment and readily showed PHP’s advocate where her tooth hurt. Much to the advocate’s surprise, when she looked in the child’s mouth, she found an abscess on her tooth.

Based upon the family’s income, the advocate determined that the family qualified for assistance from PHP’s Children’s Dental Fund. The advocate contacted a Children’s Dental Fund-enrolled dental provider to discuss needed treatment, which would include the use of general anesthesia to complete the work. PHP paid the dental provider a negotiated low-cost fee and, in turn, the Lopez family agreed to make installment payments to PHP in accordance with an income-based sliding scale.

Although Mrs. Lopez was initially worried about the use of general anesthesia for her daughter, the advocate supported her, and Mary successfully completed the dental treatment.

Subsequently, PHP staff provided the Lopez family with dental kits and education about daily brushing and preventative dental care. Mrs. Lopez continues to meet with the advocate to obtain support and information and to access other services.

DP: While we want our services to feel seamless for our clients, we couldn’t do all this alone. No single organization has the capacity, skills or resources to help all of those in need.

We partner with a number of agencies, both public and private, including Family Service Agency, Isla Vista Youth Projects, CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation), St. Vincent de Paul, Santa Ynez Tribal Health Clinic, businesses, clinics and our local school districts.

BR: I’m impressed with People Helping People’s creative and local efforts to bring people together and raise funds to support your programing, like the Santa Ynez Valley Polo Classic on June 24.

We know you’ll always welcome a donation to support your work. What else does People Helping People need from the community?

DP: We’re really looking to build a support network of neighbors, acting as champions for children and families less fortunate than themselves. Speak up and out when a child or family is in crisis due to lack of basic needs or family violence.

Research shows that improving social and academic outcomes for young children reaps long-term benefits from school and life success. Children don’t fail — our systems fail them. And, our prisons are full of those who are unsuccessful in school, medicate themselves with illicit drugs, and commit crimes to use and survive.

BR: You’ve hit on why we invest in systems change, through multiyear grants like the one our commission awarded to your Family Friend & Neighbor program.

AS: The goal of the program is to equip the family, friend and neighbor of each child in our community with the skills they need to support children in their lives. One of our strategies is to create a training curriculum for caregivers in order to improve their knowledge about child development, birth to 36 months, including social-emotional and developing a support system of care.

Ultimately, children in Family Friend & Neighbor care will be in settings that are safe, supportive and engaging, which will lead to healthy children ready for pre-school.

BR: Dean, despite your youthful looks, you’re coming up on a quarter-century of service through People Helping People. What have you learned?

DP: Don’t make assumptions about an individual’s life circumstances; don’t pass negative judgment. We frequently are not privy to their history, which might include serious injury or illness, job loss, loss of a partner or spouse, mental illness, or child and family abuse.

BR: That’s much more eloquent than the quote I normally hear about assuming. Last but not least, your pictures. These are fantastic.

DP: Here I am at 18 months and then later age 8 at Franklin School in Bergenfield, N.J.

Dean Palius, at 18 months.
Dean Palius, at 18 months. (Palius family photo)
Dean Palius, at age 8.
Dean Palius, at age 8. (Palius family photo)

AS: My picture is obviously much earlier, but I attended kindergarten at Fourth Street School in East Los Angeles.

BR: What do you remember about kindergarten?

AS: I loved reading circle and sitting next to my kindergarten teacher, Ms. Nuanes. And of course, chocolate milk during recess.

Arcelia Sención.
Arcelia Sención. (Sención family photo)

DP: I loved snack with the milk from a waxed box and a straw. I remember the first day was traumatic with my mom literally walking me to the end of the driveway and nudging me down the sidewalk for the three-block walk to the neighborhood school.

BR: If I were your mom, I’d push you out of the nest, too. Luckily for us, you landed safely here, serving the greater Santa Ynez Valley.

Thanks so much to you both for your hard work building a network of support for our children and families.

Click here for more information about First 5 Santa Barbara County.

— Ben Romo is executive director of First 5 Santa Barbara County. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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