Sebastopol’s nonprofits and service club discuss community needs

By Katherine Minkiewicz, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, May 22, 2021

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Last week the city of Sebastopol and its economic vitality contractor, CoMission, hosted the Community Needs Summit, a gathering of representatives from local service organizations and nonprofits. The meeting featured in-depth panel discussions on food and housing, mental health and schools, environment, and community enrichment, which revealed several key needs and facts.

Key takeaways voiced by participants included:

  • While there is access to food and plenty of it in Sebastopol, there’s a lack of equitable access to food and awareness on how to get food and nutrition aid from organizations like Food for Thought.
  • Tiny villages and safe parking programs could be a good solution for homelessness in the area if more people are willing to consider it and be open to the idea.
  • Homeless advocate organizations need more volunteer help and supplies.
  • Schools need to continue with building community connections, counseling and trauma-informed practices in response to increased student anxiety and mental health issues.
  • Small steps such as composting and volunteering can benefit the local environment.
  • While community engagement and arts organizations are awaking from COVID-related closures, they could still use community support.

The purpose of a summit

Sebastopol Mayor Una Glass kicked off the three-and-a-half-hour long event by discussing why the city partnered with CoMission to embark on a need-finding project.

“The past year has been tough on us all,” Glass said. “The city is holding this summit to help us all re-engage with our community and ourselves. Vital to our community are the service clubs, nonprofits and other stakeholders that help us function as a community. Food and housing, mental health, schools, our environment, the arts that nourish our minds and souls, services for the elderly and youth, food for our minds, respect for our heritage and the critical search for equity in our community, that’s what this summit is all about.”

She said the summit was also about emerging from the refuge of our homes, re-engaging with the community and exchanging ideas in an effort to help service clubs, organizations and nonprofits get to work and thrive post-COVID-19.

“Today we are penetrating the walls of our silos and communicating about our needs and our vision as we bring our community together and solve problems. Good things happen in an environment of shared information and that’s what this summit is all about,” Glass said.

Local nonprofit survey

Prior to the summit on May 12, Comission sent out 100 surveys to various organizations and community members to garner information on what community organizations want and need in a post pandemic world.

They recieved around 70 responses, according to Hal Kwalwasser of the Rotary Club of Sebastopol, one of the organizations that helped facilitate the summit.

“Those of us who created this summit began the process with a simple question, ‘What is going on in Sebastopol and west county?’ My club, and I believe most of the other service organizations, have been inundated with requests in the last few months, but we didn’t have a sense where all of those individual requests fit in the bigger picture,” Kwalwasser said. “We had been isolated in our homes and lost track of things, we needed an overview to figure out what was really important and who is doing the best job of assisting our neighbors, so we, the city of Sebastopol and Commission, sent out a survey to over 100 community organizations to try to make life better.”

After piecing together all of the responses, they discovered that many organizations and individuals faced struggles before the pandemic, but the disruptions caused by job loss, school closures, social isolation and fear, made for an even more difficult situation.

“What the survey revealed is that housing insecurity and food insecurity increased significantly during the pandemic. Those two things brought pressure on families and disrupted lives in significant ways. That turmoil caused a variety of effects, the most important at least according to the survey, were the adverse impacts on people’s mental health and student’s ability to cope with the pressures of learning in a new environment,” Kwalwasser said.

He continued, “Unfortunately, the pandemic’s reach extended beyond its harms to people. Many of our local organizations dedicated to making life better in Sebastopol were badly disrupted. Their volunteers were fearful about coming out to do their work and the organization’s typical fundraising devices were impossible when people couldn’t gather. Nowhere was that more evident than in responses from environmental groups.”

The drought, fires and the overuse of the Russian River in a year when people didn’t want to travel too far also pose more environmental problems than ever, yet climate and environmental groups haven’t had the wherewithal to respond.

Similarly, lots of civic and arts groups in Sebastopol are facing the same problem and have had to curtail services, according to survey results.

Four panels 

The panel discussion on community needs was broken down into several topics — food and housing, mental health and schools, environment and community enrichment — and each topic had a slew of presenters.

Food and housing panel

The food and housing section featured speakers Arthur George of West County Homeless Advocates, Herman J. Hernandez of Los Cien Latino Leaders of Sonoma County, Ron Karp of Food For Thought, Tim Miller of West County Community Services and Adrienne Lauby of Sonoma Applied Village Services.

“There are endless problems with hunger and housing but for me the most pressing problem is awareness and equitable distribution in terms of food. People aren’t aware of how to access it and so there’s inequitable distribution of food,” Miller said.

Karp of Food For Thought, which was originally launched in 1988 to help provide food to people with AIDS and HIV, said getting access to healthy food is also an issue since the unhealthiest foods are often the cheapest for families who may be struggling with low-income or job loss.

On the housing front, Lauby said there just isn’t enough affordable housing and if people could be more open minded regarding increased safe parking lot programs and tiny villages, such as the Los Guilicos site in Sonoma, then more people could get on the road towards housing.

George of West County Homeless Advocates said they could use more portable toilets and hand-washing stations.

“Five issues we see are drug abuse and mental wellness, safe parking, sanitation and portable toilets and hand-washing and housing,” George said.

He also mentioned wanting to focus on tiny homes and villages as a housing solution and said to increase housing it would be a better approach to pursue small steps that can be easily implemented and smaller housing projects rather than starting larger developments that can take years to complete.

Lauby said that people need to continue to stand up and break the negative stigma and stereotypes associated with homelessness since there are a number of reasons why individuals or families can become homeless.

In addition, “We believe that living in vehicles is a form of shelter, but keeping a vehicle up is very expensive. If you are part of a club or group and are looking for projects, there are a lot of people who need help registering and keeping their vehicles maintained. We have a slight bottleneck in food distribution, we’d like to be able to do more food distribution in Sebastopol and I think all we need is one or two people to step up and do something on a regular basis.”

Mental health and schools panel

The mental health and schools section featured Analy High School Principal Shauna Ferdinandson, Brooke Ransom-Burr of Social Advocates For Youth, Elizabeth Smith of Sonoma County PACEs, Gravenstein School District Superintendent David Rose and Forestville School District Board Member Renee Semik.

Smith said with the recent fires, floods and now the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the mortality rate could increase over the years.

Smith also referenced concerns with self-regulation issues and long-term effects of isolation.

As the county starts to reopen more, Smith said there should be more community gathering and positive experience activities for children. She said Sonoma County ACEs Connection — a community group that comes together to prevent, heal and treat ACEs while promoting resiliency — could use more volunteers as they bolster their efforts.

“We’re dealing with a lot of students who have documented and diagnosed anxiety … Anxiety has all kinds of effects on students,” Ferdinandson said.

In an effort to re-engage students and rekindle a sense of school community after over a year of isolation and distance learning, Ferdinandson said the high school is working on a number of things including a new bell schedule, ramping up sports and clubs and offering new clubs and teams such as esports.

E-sports is a form of competition using video games with teams and a designated coach.

Rose also spoke to the need of providing students with more engagement activities. In addition, all Gravenstein School District staff are trained in ACEs trauma informed practices and the district employs an academic counselor and a mental health counselor.

Rose said they could use more counseling services and would like to secure $25,000 in funding in order to provide stipends for counselor interns or trainees.

Environmental panel

The environment panel featured Dr. Wendy Trowbridge of the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, Sunny Galbraith from the Zero Waste Committee and Ariel Majorana from Russian Riverkeeper.

“Our mission is to restore and conserve the Laguna de Santa Rosa watershed and to teach people to appreciate it and our goal is for it to be swimmable and fishable,” Trowbridge said.

The overall theme of this discussion was that small efforts can go a long way and spark others to change their habits when it comes to addressing the environment and climate change.

Majorana encouraged people to put yard waste and certain food waste, like coffee grounds, into their green bin and Galbraith said 350 Sonoma could always use donations for their annual Climate Action Night event.

Other helpful steps to take include picking up trash when you’re on a hike, volunteering at the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, pulling weeds and teaching others about the small steps that they can do to help make a difference.

Community enrichment panel

The last panel of the evening was regarding community enrichment.

Speakers included Teresa Ramondo of the Western Sonoma County Historical Society, Sebastopol Area Senior Center Executive Director Katie Davis, Philena Chantha of the Sebastopol Community Cultural Center and Catherine Devriese, the creative director at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.

Like many of the homeless and food service organizations and nonprofits, many arts and culture organizations struggled this past year as regular revenue streams and fundraising opportunities were put on hold.

The resounding message from this discussion was the continued need for support, donations and volunteers.

Organizations like the Sebastopol Center for the Arts, Luther Burbank’s Experiment Farm and the West County Museum are also excited to reopen and to start welcoming back guests and visitors in person. For instance, the West County Museum is finally showing an exhibit that’s been in the works for many months, the Suffragette Exhibit.

The exhibit will remain on view until Aug. 26, 2021.

To view the community needs summit in its entirety, visit: https://www.facebook.com/CityofSebastopolCA.

This article was produced by SoCoNews. See more news at soconews.org