"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Shauna Hoffman, a local marriage and family therapist, and organizer of Project Town Angels. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: Tell us about Project Town Angels.
Hoffman: Project Town Angels came out of this incredible need to make some kind of difference with the Katrina victims.
We kept hearing on the news (that) everybody was sending checks to the Red Cross and doing anything they could, sending money. The more people I talked to, my friends, my neighbors ... we kept waking up kind of empty, feeling like we weren't getting an emotional payback for sending a check in the mail. We wanted to make a bigger difference. I woke up on a Wednesday morning and I, being a family therapist, and also being a business coach I came up with a business plan, a 20-point plan called Project Town Angels.
I thought if we could bring a couple of families to Santa Clarita which is an incredibly giving community, a community that has a lot of offer, a very financially stable community if we could bring two families here, how could we make a difference in their lives? Not just bring them here; actually bring them here and have them become self-sufficient within a year. Which is a little bit different from what all of the other organizations were doing.
People were giving and giving and giving of their hearts, their homes; "Come live at my house for two months." I went on one of the Web sites and it was amazing. People were saying, "You can come live in my apartment for three months." But what was going to happen to them after three months? Where are they going to go? "OK, now you have to leave." Somebody else, two months, (another) only one. There was no long-term plan for them. So I thought, OK. I'm going to look up all the possible needs that a family would have in order to become self-sufficient within a year. The idea was, at the end of the year, they could actually have enough money, enough tools, enough emotional tools, mental tools, financial tools, to actually either stay here on their own and be self-sufficient, or move back to the community where they came from, or to any community that they wanted to.
Signal: How are you going to pick the two families to bring here?
Hoffman: The Dream Center down in Los Angeles (has) about 1,000 people there right now, and they're still coming in. Especially since Houston and Rita hit, everybody keeps getting moved to different places, so there are a bunch of evacuees that were moved to the Dream Center.
(Castaic resident) Wade Trimmer, who has been working with us, actually went down there and told them what we wanted to do. They said they could help us find families that would benefit from a program like this.
Signal: You're looking for people who are needy in what kind of ways?
Hoffman: Home, job, emotional support.
Signal: Do you have some sort of criteria? Does somebody have to be totally destitute before you'll consider them?
Hoffman: No. That's a very interesting question; we have had a lot of people ask that.
We haven't decided yet who those families are. What we have to do is to see what we have to offer them. We don't want to make blind offers. We don't want a family that comes here that we can't help get on their feet. If they've been on welfare in the past we could bring a family here that's completely on welfare, but at the end of the year, what are they going to do?
Santa Clarita isn't a cheap place to live, either. It's not like New Orleans or a lot of the other places, because it's not only evacuees from New Orleans. So what we need to do is find a family that can benefit from the idea that they can get a job, or at least the major caretaker in the family can have a job and financially support the family at the end of the year ... even if it is a family that has been on welfare that wants to do this, that wants to have a job.
We are going to ask questions of them when we go to the Dream Center. The head of the Dream Center is working with us on being able to take a look at the families and see which ones would benefit the most from this.
Signal: You use the word, "we." Who is "we"?
Hoffman: Right now it's just a bunch of friends and neighbors who have gotten together. We're not a nonprofit organization. It's a grass-roots effort. It's local people in the community who want to help. Right now we have three people who are kind of heading the team Laura Piening, who has generously given of her time and efforts because she really feels that it's a way for people to help on an individual basis, to really make a difference in this world.
She says something that I just think is so beautiful: It just takes one person taking one action to make a difference, then the following action, each action after that, eventually there will be a difference made. That's what we are hoping for. We're hoping that a bunch of high schoolers get together on the dance team and decide they want to help pay for a month's worth of rent.
We have which is really sweet we have a bunch of hair stylists; they're all talking to the other hair stylists in town, so all of the hair stylists are going to try to come together and finance one month's worth of an apartment. That is, of course, unless somebody comes out and offers us an apartment for a year.
The more we can get, the more the individual donations can make a difference and actually they aren't even donations; they are pledges. Were not a nonprofit organization. We are a bunch of people who are working to try to help these families.
Signal: You mentioned Laura Piening, whose name is synonymous with the SCV Resource Center, and Wade Trimmer, whose name is synonymous with the SCV Youth Project. But they are doing this as individuals, right? Are you cherry-picking nonprofit leaders from successful organizations?
Hoffman: I used to be on the board of directors for (the) Betty Ferguson (Foundation). I called (the foundation) and they said, you out to call Laura because she knows how to get things done. But when Laura and Wade and I sat down, what we wanted was not to hit all of the people that are already working on charities, that are already working very hard on their own nonprofit organizations. We wanted to wait to hit people who are just citizens of Santa Clarita with no affiliation or (an effortless) affiliation. They are out there working for one of the church groups or working with one of the fund-raising groups, nonprofits. We wanted people who just need to make a difference and haven't had an opportunity and a way to do it.
Both Laura and Wade have taken this as a personal effort. This isn't through their organizations. And they work very hard in the organizations that they work with. But these are both very personal. (When Wade) went down to the Dream Center, he came back and told us stories about what it was like to walk through those halls and see families piled up, one after the other, with nothing absolutely nothing but maybe a gift card in their hands from Target. His heart was so broken. He said, this is immediate. This is an urgency. We have to do this. And it didn't come from any organization that he'd worked with. It came from his heart and his desire to do something personal.
Signal: You're a therapist. When disaster strikes in some part of the world Chernobyl, Bhopal, the Asian tsunami we're bombarded with images on the news and there's a heightened sense of awareness the first few weeks. Then it dissipates. How long do you think the average Santa Clarita resident will be interested in hurricane victims?
Hoffman: There is a belief than when any kind of really traumatic experience happens, any kind of disaster we were watching those victims. But what it was, was touching our fear. It was touching the fear that this could happen to me, and who is going to be there for me when this happens?
It is a healthy, therapeutic response, a psychological response, to immediately then, as soon as you go through that, actually go into denial so you can keep going. That short amount of time is the way, when they are going through it personally, feeling like, oh my God what would happen to me? Is the government going to come in with helicopters and save me?
It's a normal, healthy response and actually we've got to push the buttons again. We really do have to go back and say: But it's not over. It might not be in the news this week although Rita is, hurricane Rita that just hit.
Signal: Then it will be Hurricane Fred tomorrow, and then something new will bump that off the front page. You're talking about supporting these families for a whole year. Are you confident you will find people who will still be interested in providing the kind of help you're looking for, 10, 11, 12 months from now?
Hoffman: We need to hit it up now. We need to get the pledges now. We need to have everything in place now, so that in truthfully, in six weeks, when the families come here, it's done.
We have the food; we have a couple of the things we want. We have a school psychologist; she is already on line. She is actually going to test whatever children there are, to make sure they are properly in the system, to make sure they are put in the right year at school. Because the school systems are very different. So then she is going to follow them through for entire year.
We have St. Francis Psychotherapy and Counseling Center, which has agreed to see all of the families for an entire year, for as long as they need it. They are going to work with FEMA, they're going to make sure that they have the therapy that they need. We're asking for services. We are asking for a financial advisor who will sit for a year and actually set up a budget for them, so that at the end of the year that money is there. We want one bank representative who helps them get their account in order. We want one tutor or a few tutors in line, and truthfully, once everything is in place, we don't need everybody.
We are hoping in six weeks that we have enough people making pledges that we're done and we don't have to worry about six weeks from now.
Signal: You said you're not a nonprofit organization; are you looking for cash, or just goods and services?
Hoffman: Both. When it comes to the pledges, what we want from them is a pledge of, "I pledge $100 toward a month's rent." And then what we are going to do is, once we know the apartment, once we know who to make that check out to, we call that person back who has made that pledge and say, "Make your check out to so-and-so realty corporation." When they give us food, they're not giving us money; they are giving us coupons for Albertsons or Ralphs...
We also want them to contribute to their own lives. We don't want to make them so taken-care-of that they become helpless. We want to help empower them to become independent, and that will also be with the counseling; we will need to build their spirits back up. We need to build their identities back up. These people's identities have been totally taken away from them the societies that they live in, their communities that they live in, their churches, their social environments, their work, their school systems, everything.
Signal: We've heard stories of Katrina victims who are already here in Santa Clarita. Evidently there are people in the community who are already helping in one way or another.
Hoffman: It's amazing. It's so heartwarming and it's so wonderful. We are hearing about a family that has been living in a trailer a mother, I think, and two sons. People are coming together, and that's what they should do. We need more people coming together because we want to bring two more families here. Because we've got the room for it and we have got the financial support that I think this town can give. And the heart.
I have been in this community for 28 years, and I stay here because I think this town has a huge heart and a huge ability to make a difference. Sometimes (people) just haven't had a way to do it.
Signal: Recognizing that you and your friends wanted to do more than send a check, couldn't you have coordinated this through the Red Cross or some other existing organization? Isn't the infrastructure in place to do this?
Hoffman: We did call the Red Cross, because we wanted the Red Cross to help us find families. They have their hands full just in disaster relief immediate disaster relief. That's where their job is. Their job isn't to put somebody up for a year. Their job is to immediately get a response, to immediately come in, to get them a place to be safe. And they have done a phenomenal job. All of the donations people have made to the Red Cross have been absolutely necessary and I believe will be used properly and have been used properly. But there's more that needs to be done.
These people there is no plan. A friend of mine is Marianne Williamson. She's a very well known author; she has written a lot and she's on television shows all the time and she goes out and tries to make a difference. When I told her about this plan, I called her up, I said Marianne, what do you think of this? She said it's a model that communities can use all around the country.
What this is, is supposed to be a model not just for Santa Clarita, but a model to make a difference and to help people from Step 1 all the way through. Wade (Trimmer) said this could be used for a homeless person, a homeless family, the same exact model, where you give them the 20 steps that I really thought through, to figure out how to make them stable again. If people took this model into the homeless world, they could start making a difference there.
This model just isn't for the Katrina victims. This is, I guess, maybe a testing ground in Santa Clarita for me in my "perfect world." I want to take this model and I want somebody in Oregon to do it, and I want somebody to do it for children, for teenagers who don't know how to get back on their feet, for single mothers. It's just a basic, 20-step program of what we need in life to survive.
But half of what we need is a support system. These Katrina victims don't have a support system right now. They have a quick fix. And what I want Santa Clarita to give these people is a support system.
Signal: Is Project Town Angels a one-shot deal, or will you develop this into an organization that keeps doing this kind of thing in Santa Clarita, beyond the Katrina victims?
Hoffman: I personally am concentrating on getting this model out to the world. Am I going to use it here in Santa Clarita if another instance comes up and I think this can take place? Absolutely. If not, I will go to the churches and say, do you think you can use this for anything? I am trying to get the word out about the model itself so that people can make use of it.
So, am I personally going to take on more things after this? Ask me a year from now when we get the families on their feet and we'll talk about that.
Signal: Who is going to administer this? Are you in charge?
Hoffman: You know what? I have decided that somebody we have all talked about it somebody needs to be a case worker who makes sure that everything is followed through, and I said absolutely. I will be the one to make sure that if they need to be in contact, if all of a sudden the school psychologist moves out of town, or the therapist leaves and they need a new one, I will move them to where they need to go.
If there is a problem with their neighbors where they are living, I will be the one who steps in. Somebody's got to do it, and I'm honored to do it because I want to make a difference. That's my little way of making a difference. So, yes. And I am sure I will get a lot of support from a lot of other people.
Signal: Some people might wonder why Santa Clarita residents should concern themselves with helping people from Louisiana when we've still got people right here, despite everybody's best efforts, living under bridges in the Santa Clara River.
Hoffman: Because I don't think it is "everybody's" best efforts. Because I think that there are people who are saying those things and not taking action.
This community is filled with people taking action. One fund-raising group after another, one nonprofit after another, is working desperately to make a difference in this town. But there is a whole world of people who aren't. Some of them don't have the time, and that's understandable. Look. I didn't think I had the time, either. And we're not asking people to go out of their way. We're just asking people to look in their heart, if they feel like they want to make a difference and that they think they can.
I think you are absolutely right. People need to be helped. The ones somebody living homeless on the street; if people want to help them, they should. Why should they help the Katrina victims? Why shouldn't they help the Katrina victims? Why should they be separate? And you know what? The people who don't want to help them, won't help them.
But I think people watched over and over on the news, the heart-wrenching stories, the children. I think there is a huge world you know, we're very sheltered in Santa Clarita. (People) don't realize the way a lot of the other people in this country live, especially our teens and our youth. I mean, I am a therapist in this town, and I see what the youth expects, and I think sometimes if they could be shown that there is another world, that there are other people who live differently from them, they would be so much the better for it.
I think the people who want to look outside themselves will, and the people who don't, won't.
Signal: Up until Sept. 11 and Katrina, it seemed like those sorts of things just don't happen in America. From a therapist's viewpoint, how do you think people's perceptions of their world, their safety, changed? How do you think people should deal with knowing these things can actually happen here?
Hoffman: I think that it becomes a place of a new reality, that our world isn't what it used to be. That we need to maybe open our eyes a little larger.
Television and the Internet have changed the world drastically. You now see that we're not as safe as we used to be. It used to be, in the days before local television, local news, that we didn't see shootings on the streets. We didn't see people being carjacked. We felt very safe in our communities. But now that the news is showing us that there are these things, all of a sudden our level of reality changes.
I think it is a good thing, because it is a different world. It's not the world that we would love to believe is this wonderful community of Santa Clarita that's so safe. I think what are we, the third, fifth safest city in the country? But if you leave Santa Clarita, you'd better watch your wallet, watch your purse, and make sure that you are safe.
I think it's important that people understand that there is more to this world, and that they need to take a look at a bigger-picture world. It's also not just this country anymore. Our country jumps in to help other countries all the time, and it's an amazing thing. And the news is bringing that al the time. We're seeing catastrophes all over the world. It's slowly making us become more realistic.
It is kind of sad? Yeah. Is it bursting bubbles? Absolutely. But does it make us stronger psychologically? Absolutely. A child who experiences and looks at these things, looks at these families, is going to be able to cope better with life because they are not in a little bubble. They see heartache and they see sadness, and they see that they're happy. And they see the things they want in life that keep them happy. So there has to be a balance to see where you are at, also.
Signal: Who do people call? What do people do to help?
Hoffman: SCVAngels@yahoo.com; our Web site is www.townangels.org. They can go take a look at the plan.
What we need are food, apartments, transportation; we need phone, electrical; we need pledges; we need people who have things they can offer; services. Our telephone number is (661) 310-2900. We just want a grass-roots effort. We want people to jump in.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.