Rooted in Santa Barbara’s Past, Family Services Agency Adapts to Its Present and Future | Good for Santa Barbara
[Noozhawk’s note: First in a series sponsored by the Hutton Parker Foundation.]
The nonprofit family service agency has served Santa Barbara County for 123 years. It opened in 1899 with one employee and a few volunteers providing eight families with food, clothing, firewood and financial support.
Although needs have changed over the past century, the Family Services Agency’s commitment remains vital and unwavering, responding to community challenges as they emerge. Today, the FSA has 234 experienced professionals who assist nearly 28,000 people in five county locations.
The Constitution of Associated Charities, as it was historically known, represented Santa Barbara County’s first organized social service agency. Over the decades, the charity grew while helping Santa Barbara residents through the Great Depression, the 1925 earthquake, and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. In fact, in 1919, Associated Charities transformed its original adobe wing into an emergency hospital to treat the flu.
By 1920, 345 families were served by the agency, which positioned itself as a safeguard to ensure that no poverty or avoidable suffering persisted without relief.
This fundamental principle continued to guide the Family Services Agency, which it was renamed in May 1953 to recognize its transition from a group-oriented to a family-service-oriented agency. It was during this time that the agency expanded its counseling services to children, families and couples, reflecting the increase in the number of working mothers, the high cost of living and the mobility of families.
“It’s the adaptability of the agency,” said executive director Lisa Brabo, “that explains its longevity.”
During the second half of the 1950s and early 1960s, family life changed again, creating a new model of social work that focused on “rebuilding family life, understanding parent-child relationships, and offering all manner of benefits to young and old,” as described in a 1956 annual meeting address.
This philosophy would inspire the FSA’s current mission: “to strengthen and advocate for families and individuals of all ages and diversities, helping to create and sustain a healthy community”.
This healthy community expanded in the 1960s to serve residents of Carpinteria, Lompoc and Santa Maria, while new programs were developed to help the elderly, a target audience served by the family services agency of today.
As early as 1917, low-income Santa Barbara families struggling with malnutrition, tuberculosis, and diabetes received fresh milk through the FSA’s Family Milk Fund. Social workers who made deliveries helped with meal planning and budgeting, continuing the program until 1946. (Family Services Agency file photo)
The FSA would come to strengthen ties with these communities, eventually merging with the Santa Maria Valley Youth & Family Center in 2017 and Guadalupe’s Little House by the Park in 2019.
The Family Service Agency was forced to sell its original adobe home in 1980 due to declining funding from federal sources and the United Way of Santa Barbara County. It moved into the De la Vina Street space before eventually settling in its current location at 123 W. Gutierrez St., the site of the iconic former institution, the Talk of the Town restaurant.
The sale of the property brought new sources of income and an upsurge in volunteers. It was also around this time that a community working group identified the need for youth mental health services, as the country saw an increase in suicide rates among young children and violent crimes committed by young people. .
Clinical care in Santa Barbara was unaffordable for most, forcing the FSA to establish a referral clinic for children. This clinic would lead to long-standing contracts with local school districts to provide on-site counseling to children and their families, a partnership that is thriving more than 40 years later.
The Family Services Agency now has a presence in seven school districts, serving 38 elementary schools, 13 middle schools, and eight high schools, reaching 650 students. All of the students surveyed who received treatment showed a reduction in symptoms of depression.
This ability to identify community needs and develop programs to meet those needs is fundamental to FSA. Most recently, the organization has helped the community deal with challenges resulting from the Thomas Fire in 2017, the deadly Montecito flash floods and debris flows in 2018, and COVID-19.
The Guadalupe Parent Changers group sewed and distributed masks for North County farm workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Family Services Agency)
“During COVID, all of our basic services were needed,” Brabo said.
People were grappling – many for the first time – with declining income, difficulty navigating between childcare and remote learning, and an increase in mental health issues. Older people and their caregivers have also experienced a lack of support while isolated at home.
“The problem with COVID is that it’s not a short-term problem,” Brabo explained. “It’s cumulative. We dig into two years of trouble as people are still behind on bills, rent and school as mental health issues have skyrocketed.
When farmworkers needed quarantine space, the FSA secured hotel rooms through its Housing for the Harvest program, providing safe isolation while staying in constant contact with family.
When parents needed more help because the children were home from school, the FSA set up a parental coaching call service staffed by bilingual educators.
When the elderly remained housebound, the FSA provided food and friendship.
The Family Service Agency’s Dorothy Jackson Family Resource Center in Lompoc has become a weekly food distribution center for the community during the COVID-19 crisis. (Photo by Family Services Agency)
And the FSA has expanded its partnerships with organizations such as the Santa Barbara County Food Bank, United Way and the Mental Wellness Center to help address financial, medical and mental health challenges, always working together to avoid duplication of effort.
It’s no surprise that the FSA was recently honored as the 2022 Public Health Champion, so recognized for the agency’s ability to work collaboratively, show leadership and demonstrate sensitivity while improving the health status of local residents.
With over a century of experience, FSA has a rich history that has set a framework for its future, as well as extraordinary partnerships with public entities, non-profit organizations, schools, corporations, private foundations and donors who have enabled FSA to amplify its impact, helping to stabilize and strengthen our community.
Click here for more information on the Family Services Agency. Click here to donate online.
– Ann Pieramici is a contributing writer for Noozhawk. She can be reached at [email protected].