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Early Adopters: Volunteer Center’s Adopt-A-Family Program

Adopt-A-Family programOver 25 years, the Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz County’s Adopt-A-Family program has changed the way locals give during the holidays

To understand why the Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz County’s Adopt-A-Family program continues to grow each year, it helps to understand the power of the bond that’s created between donors and the local families in need that they adopt.

Even the Volunteer Center’s Shannon Brock didn’t really understand it, despite being co-coordinator of the Adopt-A-Family program for three years. She knew that donors and adopted families can end up staying in touch after the holiday season, and even become close friends—it happens quite often, in fact, Volunteer Center staff say. But she didn’t really know why.

That changed last month, though, when Brock was looking through the names of families in the program this year, and saw a name she recognized. Two years ago, a couple of other women who worked at the Volunteer Center—Americorps volunteers, as Brock had originally been—had adopted a single mom with two 4-year-old daughters. They had brought them Thanksgiving dinner, and later a delivery of Christmas gifts, and had stayed close with them. But both of them had since left Santa Cruz for grad school. So Brock decided they’d be the first family she adopted as part of the program; in past years, she’d mostly been manning the warehouse which handles donations from individuals and businesses.

Just last week, Brock went and delivered her family their Christmas gifts. She was delighted by the daughters, now 6, and their mother, and suddenly she felt just how intensely personal Adopt-A-Family can be.

“Now I totally understand why some donors get so attached,” says Brock. “I totally get it now. I know we’re definitely going to be in contact throughout the year.”

Now imagine a similar scenario repeated with more than 450 families in Santa Cruz County, which is how many Adopt-A-Family will help this holiday season, and it stops seeming like something that can be described simply as “charity,” and starts seeming more like community.

And a community effort is exactly how it originated. Executive Director Karen Delaney, who has been with the Volunteer Center for 32 years, remembers that the Adopt-A-Family program started after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, when charities and individuals around the Bay Area were calling up, asking how they could help. The Volunteer Center hit on the idea of donors giving to specific families that had been displaced, and it caught on.

“We kept that idea going in subsequent years,” says Delaney, “because it seemed like people enjoyed the option of not having just anonymous giving, but to truly get to know their neighbors.”

Sometimes, says Delaney, charity can seem abstract to people, but not with Adopt-A-Family. “The thing that’s so wonderful about Adopt-A-Family is it’s very local, and it’s very relatable,” she says. “That’s one of the reasons it keeps growing. There are these families in every neighborhood, and they’re living these quiet lives that maybe aren’t so happy.” The program is a very real example, she says, of how “you don’t have to wait for somebody far away to fix something. We can make sure that hundreds of families are better off right now. People love that idea.”

Adopt-A-Family is not the only way the Volunteer Center, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2017, creates community. With a small staff of 16, they run 22 programs, which also includes their popular Human Race Walkathon and Fun Run (May 7 in 2016). But perhaps more importantly, last year alone they worked with 11,000 volunteers, connecting them with some 400 nonprofits throughout Santa Cruz County. They are the glue that holds the county’s network of good work together.

“Every day I’m surprised by who shows up,” says Kelly Mercer, the Volunteer Center’s director of community engagement. “Every day it’s completely new.”

Rather than helping just one cause, as many nonprofits do, the staff of the Volunteer Center get the opportunity to help every cause in Santa Cruz County. They see their job as making it as easy as possible for anyone who feels the desire to offer their time or money to connect with the best place for them to do it. That sometimes means understanding a volunteer’s interests and passions, but it can also mean figuring out their skills, or simply how they enjoy spending their time. Quite often, it can mean finding out what places a volunteer can physically get to. The Volunteer Center is always looking at new advancements and any other way to make volunteering as easy as possible—a forward-thinking style for which Mercer credits Delaney.

“We’re really fortunate to have the leadership of Karen, who really is open to trying new things,” says Mercer. “She’s smart about the opportunities we pursue.”

“I think that’s the benefit of working with a lot of different organizations,” says Delaney. “What you realize is that it’s never about one way to do things. We really believe that our job is to make community engagement work for every person.”


Santa Cruz Gives

The Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz County is one of 30 nonprofits in GT’s Santa Cruz Gives holiday giving campaign, which runs through Dec. 31. To read about the Adopt-A-Family program for which they are seeking funding from Santa Cruz Gives donors, go to santacruzgives.com. For more information on the Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz County, visitscvolunteercenter.org.


WITH THE ASSIST Players from the Santa Cruz Warriors team paid a visit to some of the kids in the Adopt-A-Family program.

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