FROM THE NEWS-LEDGER
JUNE 1, 2011
By Steve Marschke
If you live in West Sacramento and you need a little help of some kind, this is a pretty good place to start.
We’re talking about “portable building number 21” at the back of the campus at Alyce Norman Elementary School, 1200 Anna Street. That’s where the Yolo County Children’s Alliance has set up its West Sacramento field headquarters. The group uses paid staff, volunteers and various community partners to dish out a bunch of services and referrals. The offerings range from free food, to parenting classes, to tax preparation, and to low-cost health insurance referrals.
The array of services is so diverse even Katie Villegas, executive director of the Yolo County Children’s Alliance, admits it can get confusing.
“We can sign people up for any help they need – if they walk into our office, we can get them set up,” she said. “Since 2006, we’ve done enrollment for health insurance programs. Now, we’re doing health insurance plus 16 other programs.”
Signing families up for free or low-cost children’s health care has been a big priority for the Alliance. Other programs provide help to mothers, infants and pregnant moms, or help subsidize utility bills for low-income people, or help people get food stamps.
“West Sacramento has a lot of people who qualify for food stamps but don’t know it,” said Villegas. “We fill out the application and walk it over to the (Yolo County) Department of Social Services, and they waive the normal face-to-face interview. That cuts the wait time from 45 days to five days.”
Help is available in English, as well as Spanish and (sometimes) Russian.
When the News-Ledger paid a visit to the site a month ago, volunteers were helping to unload produce outside for free distribution, thanks to a special arrangement with the Yolo County Food Bank.
“That’s about 2,300 pounds of food,” said Villegas. “This happens every Friday, rain or shine – but if the school is closed, like at Christmas, then we’re closed. We use volunteers, especially for the food distribution every Friday – a lot of the clients will actually jump in and volunteer to help. About 150 families get ten pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables each.”
The Alliance has also started an annual “Community Giveaway Day,” inviting community members to donate clothes, household goods and whatever other still-useful items they may have. The goods are then passed out free to those in need.
“That happens the Saturday before Thanksgiving,” said Villegas. “We take donations all year around. Especially blankets, clothes and shoes – they go really fast. People can drop off things Monday through Friday, from 8 to 5.”
Newer this year is a program designed to help low-income people fill out their tax returns – and hopefully, get back a refund by claiming an earned income tax credit.
“Families making below $50,000 can get free tax help,” Villegas stated. “All our volunteers are trained by the I.R.S. This year, we helped 90 families, and they got around $200,000 in tax refunds. It was a huge success. The average refund per family is about $1,300. Those refunds went right into the local economy. A local stimulus package!”
Next door to the Alliance’s office is a “mommy-baby clothes closet,” created with help from the local Soroptimist chapter.
“We have strollers, clothes and baby items” for new parents, Villegas said. Also offered are child abuse prevention programs, helping to educate expectant parents.
Nearby in the portable building is an office of the Yolo Family Services Agency.
“They opened a counseling office next to the clothes closet. It’s a huge deal that they are here, providing all kinds of services. They offer one-on-one mental health counseling and crisis intervention, and there is nothing else like it in West Sacramento.”
The counseling services are covered by insurance programs including MediCal, and are also available on a sliding fee scale.
Villegas is also excited about an independent – and cheap – source of groceries that’s available to anyone, at www.thetreasurebox.org. She’s promoting it to anyone who needs help making ends meet.
“Basically, you pay $32 for a box of food that could feed a family lunch or dinner for a week, or a single person for a month – it’s $100 worth of food for $32. It includes anything from chicken and cereal to pies. Anybody can take advantage of it – people buy it for their kids, college kids use it, people give it as gifts. You sign up before the 15th of the month using a debit or credit card or food stamps. You pick it up on a Saturday.”
She’s also passionate about her agency’s role in finding homes for local foster children.
“There were a ton of foster kids coming from West Sacramento, and no parents to take them,” recalled Villegas. “That has changed. A lot of people from Davis and Esparto and so forth stepped up to help keep kids local. It’s really important to keep kids local, close to their environment. It also costs four times more to place a kid out of town.”
The Yolo County Children’s Alliance is a county-chartered group with 17 board members. Funding comes “a little bit here and a little bit there,” said Villegas. Some of it comes from the “First 5 Yolo” organization – the local branch of a statewide program that uses tobacco taxes for services that benefit children under age five.
“First 5, Yolo County and Kaiser are our top three supporters.”
Private partners include the Grocery Outlet’s owners:
“Eric and Shannon Flick are constant partners with us – we just had our (fundraising) ‘fun run,’ and they provided all the water and veggies.”
State budget cuts and other financial troubles are putting a dent in the Alliance’s resources, but the group will weather the storm, said Villegas.
“We’re going to lose some employees – one is going off to medical school, and another to graduate school, so we’ll cut staff through attrition. The work is not going away. We’re seeing a huge increase in families in need, and we have to do more with less. This next six to 12 months, we’ll have to be particularly creative.”
Soon, the group hopes to open a new thrift store to raise some money – outfitting it with donated labor from the Northern California Construction Training school.
If Villegas’s name sounds familiar, it may be because she’s married to West Sacramento city council member Oscar Villegas. Their family lives in Southport.
The “take-home message” from Katie Villegas?
It’s that if there’s something you need help with, the Alliance is a pretty good place to start looking. Look for the Yolo County Children’s Alliance on Facebook, visit www.yolokids.org, or call (916) 572-0560. The agency can also use donated goods and volunteers.
copyright News-Ledger 2011
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