A group from Petaluma People Services Center (PPSC) prepare food to go at a former congregate meal site as part of the agency's expanded human-services program offerings. (Photos courtesy of PPSC)

Petaluma People Services Center (PPSC), an umbrella agency that encompasses 64 human-services programs, keeps expanding while helping thousands.

With a staff of 70, the Sonoma County nonprofit has successfully met challenges spurred by COVID-19 — by jumpstarting new initiatives such as You’re Not Alone, which makes daily phone calls to upwards of 1,000 isolated, conversation-starved seniors (and their caregivers). It’s also pumped up the number of hot meal deliveries to homebound seniors.

In addition, the four-decade-old PPSC is tutoring many who’ve lost jobs but don’t know how to file for unemployment benefits since they’ve never filed before.

One “silver lining” of the pandemic, says Elece Hempel, the organization’s 59-year-old executive director, “is that when we provide help to kids living in poverty now, we have a much higher rate participating in counseling” because instead of needing to come in, they can get help via Zoom.

Elece Hempel, PPSC’s executive director, has tried to anticipate challenges and setbacks to continue operating programs as seamlessly as possible.

Some mental-health counseling, moreover, has been switched from in-person to phone interactions.

Comparatively fresh, too, is PPSC’s partnership with IsoCare, which began in March and already serves 400 clients monthly via 150 trained volunteers. IsoCare’s aim is “to support those who have the virus or who have been asked to self-isolate” through education, problem solving and support. 

“We oversee everything they do,” noted Hempel. “And we’re starting to hire some people.” The first two were added to the payroll at the end of August.

Tackling prejudice, locally and beyond, has also become a PPSC concern. In June, Suzi Grady, a staffer of the agency’s Petaluma Bounty, a program that provides fresh produce to low-income residents, blogged on the center’s website that “we stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement” and cited a “long history of systemic anti-Black and Brown police violence and racism.” 

Despite all PPSC’s innovations and good work, “there have been setbacks,” admitted Hempel. But they were overcome.

For instance, when the virus stopped the center’s dining area from continuing as a congregate in-person site, it was rapidly changed into a meal-pickup place. Or when PPSC required masked Meals on Wheels drivers to drop off coolers so they could be sanitized and many were stolen, they were swiftly replaced.

“We’re always prepared for the next onslaught,” declared Hempel.

Suzi Grady (center) and the PPSC Petaluma Bounty team (pictured here pre-pandemic) works to increase access to healthy foods for low-income families and seniors.

In 2019, PPSC served more than 12,000 people, helping them cope with anxiety and depression, financial assistance for homeless prevention, relationship difficulties, fair housing and other tenant-landlord issues, drug and alcohol prevention, school problems, domestic violence and sexual abuse, grief and loss, parenting, gang prevention, youth employment, and aging troubles.

But age isn’t the main determinant. PPSC’s website explains that the agency consists of a “community of caregivers … whose sole purpose is to make people’s lives better. We strive to do this one child, one adult and one senior at a time.”

It also “values diversity. Whatever your ethnicity, religion, country of origin, language, abilities, sexual orientation, or gender, you are welcome here.” 

PPSC’s exact future may be fuzzy, however. Being a caregiver is “really hard work and stressful,” commented Hempel. “When we come out of this pandemic, the question is how we can continue to support each other.”