Thursday, June 4, 2020     Volume: 21, Issue: 14

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on March 4th, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 45 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 20, Issue 45


By Sun Staff

National volunteer-based nonprofit is bringing mental health services to Santa Maria


After their son was diagnosed with schizophrenia 25 years ago, George Kaufmann and his wife didn’t know where to turn for answers on how to help their son with his recovery or how to cope with the diagnosis themselves.  

Get involved
For more information about the Santa Barbara County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), visit, or contact Family Advocate Ramona Winner at (805) 884-8440, Ext. 3206;

President of the local National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter George Kaufman (left) and volunteers who teach courses for NAMI, such as Tom Franklin (center) and Marian McKenzie (right), all share the personal experience of caring for a loved one with a mental illness.

“Our family knew nothing about mental illness,” Kaufmann said. “We didn’t realize he was dealing with this issue for a year or more.”

Living in Michigan at the time, they eventually found a support group through their local National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter and slowly became more involved and began volunteering. When they later moved to Santa Barbara, they again tracked down the local affiliate.  

NAMI is a national volunteer-based nonprofit with chapters throughout the country. These groups advocate for additional mental health resources, while also running support groups and free classes that help families and individuals living with mental illnesses.

Northern Santa Barbara County has been without a NAMI affiliate since the previous chapter ceased operating about six or seven years ago. Families and individuals seeking the group’s services had to travel to NAMI San Luis Obispo County or NAMI Southern Santa Barbara County, which Kaufmann has served as the president of for the last six years.

“We’ve gotten calls from folks begging us to come into Santa Maria, and we wanted to do it, but there’s a financial issue; it costs money,” Kaufmann said. 

But this has changed over the last two years. NAMI received some sizable donations that put the local chapter in the position of being able to expand its services into North County, Kaufmann said.

Its new local presence will kick off with NAMI’s family-to-family class on Feb. 12. Kaufmann said this is recognized as NAMI’s most well-known service throughout the country. During this 12-week course, a volunteer teaches caregivers how mental illnesses affect individuals and their families. 

“There’s not a cure, but there are ways that we can support the recovery of our relative, take care of ourselves, and help the family, and that’s what the family-to-family class is designed to do,” Kaufmann said.

NAMI volunteer Tom Franklin will be leading the course in Santa Maria. He’s volunteered with the organization since his son was diagnosed with a mental health disorder about 10 years ago. 

All volunteers who teach courses through NAMI must have the firsthand experience of caring for a loved one living with a mental illness, Franklin said. Prior to teaching the course, the volunteer must undergo training and receive certification from NAMI California, the statewide affiliate.

The personal experience of caring for a loved one living with a mental illness allows the volunteer to bring perspective to the course that somebody would otherwise not be able to offer. 

Marian Regional Medical Center has provided the local National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter with a space to teach the classes it’s now offering in Santa Maria.

“What that implies is that nobody gets it like somebody who has lived through it,” Kaufmann said.

Each course during the 12-week program covers a different topic, such as how to communicate with somebody with a mental illness, the types of medication available, and self-care help, Franklin said. But crucially, the class also provides people with a built-in support group of individuals going through similar experiences. 

“The first night you can just tell these people have been through hell,” Franklin said. “By the end, the load is a lot lighter.”

Not having NAMI services in North County created a void in an area already lacking mental health services, Kaufmann said. For example, all of the county’s 16 in-patient psychiatric beds are in South County

To bring its services to Santa Maria, NAMI is partnering with Marian Regional Medical Center, which has offered the nonprofit a space to teach its courses. NAMI is also partnering with Transitions-Mental Health Association, a nonprofit that offers mental health services in North County and San Luis Obispo County.

With this expansion in services, NAMI is in the process of changing its name—from NAMI Southern Santa Barbara County to NAMI Santa Barbara County—to reflect its service of the whole county rather than just the southern portion. 

Kaufmann said that while NAMI is beginning small with the one course in North County, he hopes to offer what’s called a peer-to-peer course in the summer. Somebody living with a mental illness leads this class and helps other people living with their own mental illnesses. Following this peer-to-peer course in the summer, NAMI plans to run another family-to-family course at Marian Regional Medical Center in the fall.

Being an organization entirely run by volunteers, the teachers and other people involved with the work dedicate a lot of their time while also caring for their own loved ones. But Franklin views the experience as helpful rather than a burden. 

Likewise, Kaufmann said volunteering is part of his own recovery process. 

Through NAMI, Kaufmann said his family has learned that they didn’t cause his son’s mental illness and they can’t cure it. All they can do is cope. But even now, decades after their son was first diagnosed, this is difficult to accept.  

“Intellectually, it’s easier to understand, but emotionally it’s really hard,” Kaufmann said. 

This is why Kaufmann said he believes what NAMI does is so valuable, especially with its emphasis on self-care. 

“To me that’s the thing that makes what we do so special with these classes and support groups,” Kaufmann said. “It’s knowing what’s helpful and what isn’t.” 

Reach Staff Writer Zac Ezzone at

The Salvation Army seeks to keep up its services even while its funding model deteriorates


The line outside the Salvation Army in Santa Maria slowly grows in the early morning hours; as the sun rises, shadows appear, and traffic on Cook Street thrums. 

Hours of operation
The Salvation Army in Santa Maria, located at 200 W. Cook St., is open Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to noon. The local organization’s current biggest need is for donations of nonperishable food items. To learn more about the Salvation Army, to volunteer, or to donate, visit

The Salvation Army in Santa Maria provides a plethora of resources—not just to the homeless or out of work, but to families looking for some breathing room.

In a scatter of tongues—sometimes English, sometimes Spanish, and occasionally a mixture of both—families with strollers, single adults, and parents shepherding children await the food pantry’s opening. They could also be stopping by the office to pick up a hygiene kit or waiting for that day’s hot lunch service.

At 200 W. Cook St., people are sometimes turned away, and Patricia Torres occasionally worries that she’ll have to turn away even more.

As captain of the local branch of the Salvation Army, she has a slew of potential barriers to overcome. Sometimes homeless or needy people don’t want a handout, or they don’t know what kinds of services the Salvation Army provides. Sometimes, people confuse the organization for something else entirely.

“They have this misconception that we’re associated with the U.S. military,” Torres said. “Sometimes they don’t come back.”

That’s one small confusion, but Torres said more barriers have arisen lately. The organization has seen huge drops in its national Red Kettle fundraiser, which raises 70 percent of the organization’s funding. A slump in retail traffic is the suspected culprit. Torres is still counting up this year’s haul, but she has already cut back on staff in a response to previous years’ shortfalls.

“This year we’re cutting it close,” she said.

As donations have faltered, political tensions have ratcheted up around immigration. Torres and other advocates of poor and low-income people worry that a sort of chilling effect has blanketed the region. With Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids made more frequent and more public, Torres said she worries fewer people are seeking out the services they need.

“There’s a lot of fear,” Torres said. “Especially among illegal residents.”

The Salvation Army’s food pantry offers canned foods or pastas. And when it can, if offers fresh fruits and vegetables provided by local farmers.

But the local Salvation Army branch has tried to increase its services as money has gotten tighter. When Torres and her husband, Juan, became branch captains, they put in a clothing closet. It provides clothing to the homeless, who sometimes simply throw away items of clothing after a big rainstorm hits because they have nowhere to dry them. 

But Torres said she noticed that homeless people weren’t the only ones coming in to get clothes. People who might be working but also might not have the money for a clean pair of shoes or a fresh shirt for work also stopped in.

The branch even signed up 400 families for its annual toy program to offer children some sense of a holiday tradition not everyone can afford. For many recipients, the relationship doesn’t end there.

“They don’t just want to come and ask for help,” Torres said. “They want to give back.”

Parents come back and serve hot lunches, donated by places like Dominos, or help organize the food pantry or clothing closet. Some operate the front desk where they accept applications for help on rent checks and dispense hygiene kits. Sometimes, teens comes to offer their help having seen firsthand the relief the Salvation Army can offer.

“That’s what mom and dad have instilled in them,” Torres said.

What worries Torres now is a lack of destinations for people who call park benches and alleys home. She said Santa Maria has cracked down on homeless people sleeping out on the sidewalk, confronting her own organization for people loitering outside.

“There used to be 25 or so people waiting out there,” she said. “Now they have nowhere to go. That’s why they’re all at the riverbed.”

For the future, they’re hoping to build more space to fill a need for the after-dark hours. In a patch of green across the parking lot from the church, Torres hopes to one day have another space where the homeless can come warm up. But even that wouldn’t have the capacity to house people overnight. For now, the church keeps its dining room available for the needy, but only if there’s a 50 percent chance of rain, or the forecast suggests a particularly cold night.

Outside the building, as the sun gained height, the line grew. Many were there to pick up canned foods from the pantry or some produce from the daily delivery the branch receives from its partners. Behind them, two columns of Santa Maria Police Department motorcycle officers sat idling at the stoplight. Many heads in the line turned, surveying the vehicles gleaming in the morning light. 

The light changed, the police thundered on, and the wait for groceries continued. 

Contact Staff Writer William D’Urso at

Local Air Force focused nonprofit raises awareness of paying respects to veterans laid to rest during the holidays


On Dec. 14, 25 volunteers gathered at the entrance of the Paso Robles District Cemetery in the Veterans Memorial area.

The gathering was in recognition of National Wreaths Across America Day, where volunteers place wreaths on the headstones of veterans who have been laid to rest.

Get involved
To learn more about how to sponsor a wreath, visit and look for a cemetery near you under locations. There, you can also find the local organization helping spearhead the sponsorships.

Coni Wells said she watched her 13-year-old son Colton place wreaths and salute veterans that were laid to rest during the Dec. 14 ceremony.

Coni Wells’ 13-year-old son participated in the ceremony by going to each headstone and paying his respects.

It’s the first time Wells and her son have attended the ceremony, and she describes the event as incredibly moving.

“It was definitely hard for me to stop the tears. Even just walking around and especially watching my son salute each of the headstones and say out loud to each one, ‘Thank you for your service,’ … even now it’s making me tear up,” she told the Sun.

Wells’ son Colton is a member of the Paso Robles Civil Air Patrol Squadron 446, a local chapter of the Civil Air Patrol nonprofit—which also has chapters in San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria, and Santa Barbara—and part of the official civilian auxiliary of the United States Air Force. The nonprofit is made up of adult volunteers and members from 12 to 18 years old, and the organization works to instill the core values of volunteer service, respect, and integrity.

Michael Huff, location coordinator for the Paso Robles district cemetery and the captain of Squadron 446, said this is the fourth year that the squadron has participated in the nationally celebrated day.

Wreaths Across America is a nationwide organization that coordinates wreath-laying ceremonies at more than 2,100 locations across the United States in December. The mission of the organization is to “remember, honor, and teach” the community about the men and women who have sacrificed their time and safety for the country.

Cemeteries in Guadalupe, Arroyo Grande, Paso Robles, Los Osos, and Cambria participate each year, attempting to get sponsorships for wreaths to place on the graves of more than 6,645 veterans. While the Civil Air Patrol works on sponsoring wreaths for the cemetery district in Paso, Guadalupe American Legion Post 371 takes on the role for the Guadalupe Cemetery District’s 40 veteran graves. Three groups sponsor wreaths for the Arroyo Grande Cemetery District’s 2,030 veteran graves—Boy Scouts Troop 450, Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 982, and Airmen Against Drunk Driving. 

For the ceremony, Huff said he gathers active duty men and women of each branch of the armed forces to volunteer and place the wreaths on each headstone.

The wreaths placed on veteran graves are more than just a holiday decoration it’s a token of appreciation.  

According to the Wreaths Across America website, the balsam fir wreaths hold a special significance. The evergreens signify longevity and endurance; the red bow means great sacrifice; the forest scent is purity and simplicity; the circular shape demonstrates eternity. A wire frame holds the wreath together with 10 spaces for the greenery to go in. The spaces are meant to signify the 10 qualities that veterans embody: faith, love, strength, honesty, humility, ambition, optimism, concern, pride, and hopes and dreams.

In order to ensure that each grave has a wreath, school, scout, civic, and/or religious groups such as Paso Robles Civil Air Patrol Squadron 446 fundraise for wreath sponsorships. Through the partnership, the squadron receives some funds to assist in furthering their other activities and projects.

During the ceremony, Huff read aloud each veteran’s name and the name of the volunteer placing the wreath. It’s a time for those in attendance to reflect, he said, and learn about the veterans and give thanks for their service.

Often, Huff said, if there is a veteran with a known history, he tells his squadron members to do an internet search and learn about that person and their service.

In December 2019, Squadron 466 was able to get 443 wreaths sponsored, covering about a third of the veterans in the cemetery. In 2020, Huff said the squadron is working with Wreaths Across America to get enough sponsorships to cover all of the graves in the district cemetery.

In order to assist in meeting that goal, Wreaths Across America will match any funds raised by Squadron 446 on or before Jan. 15. Beyond the Jan. 15 deadline, the local group will be taking sponsorships throughout the year and looking for more volunteers to participate in the ceremony, which is slated for Dec. 19.

    Wells not only advocates for people to sponsor a wreath with the veteran in mind but to also support the local squadron, which she said is an asset to the community.

   Squadron 446 is a small platoon of about eight young members, not including the adult volunteers. The group’s mission is to support the community with emergency response, diverse aviation and ground services, youth development, and promotion of air, space, and cyber power.

   Wells said her son Colton looks forward to the weekly meetings that the group has. The meetings focus on a certain topic, such as physical training, safety and character development, leadership, and aerospace.

“These components of the [Civil Air Patrol] program give Colton more confidence and pride in himself, keeping him physically fit, and advance him toward his goal of becoming a commercial pilot,” she said.

Her son is also on a water polo team, but she said it’s through the program that he feels a greater sense of belonging. Wells said at the Wreaths Across America ceremony, she saw her son show his appreciation for not only veterans, but for their act of service, something he wouldn’t have learned had he not joined the local squadron.

“Colton has become more aware of the world outside himself,” Wells said. 

New Times Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at

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