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Vista Del Mar’s first century of child, family care

by Jessica Pauline Ogilvie

October 6, 2010 | 9:56 am

Wandering through Vista Del Mar’s tree-lined grounds on a recent afternoon, president and CEO Elias Lefferman talks about the organization with fatherly pride. “These used to be dorms,” he said, gesturing to elementary school classrooms now adorned with alphabet letters and children’s drawings. And the tennis courts, green areas and newly renovated buildings all offer clients “plenty of space,” he said. 

The Westside campus that houses the comprehensive social services agency is still a work in progress. Last year, Vista Del Mar Child & Family Services opened the Henry and Marcia Baron School for Exceptional Children, which will work primarily with children on the autism spectrum, and the organization broke ground for a new educational center in August of this year.

But for a facility that began as a home for orphans in the early 1900s and is now celebrating its centennial anniversary with a gala on Oct. 10, growth has been measured in decades and slow societal shifts.

Vista Del Mar incorporated in 1908 as the Jewish Orphan’s Home of Southern California, under the leadership of Bavarian immigrant Siegfried Marshutz, with help from a B’nai B’rith Women chapter, among other supporters. The agency’s first home on Mission Road in East Los Angeles housed five young residents in 1909.

After moving to Huntington Park and the West Adams District, the agency relocated in 1925 to ranchland named Rancho Vista Del Mar on Motor Avenue in Palms and officially changed its name to include Vista Del Mar.

As the years went by, programs were added to address the needs of an ever-expanding group of residents. What began as a safe place for homeless youth grew into a facility that offered adoption services and care for children with behavioral or psychiatric problems, severe emotional problems or significant disturbances at home. In the 1950s, the organization officially changed its mission to reflect the therapeutic services it had come to provide.

Within the past few years, the all-volunteer board decided to change the organization’s focus yet again when it voted to significantly scale back residential care, a cornerstone of Vista Del Mar’s services since its inception.

With this shift in mindset, the goals of Vista Del Mar have changed. The facility now seeks to keep children at home rather than housing them on site, and in 2001 the organization became one of the first providers in Los Angeles County to offer wraparound services, a city-based program designed to help families in need.

“Wraparound is an integrated multiagency, community-based process to support families,” said Neil Zanville of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. “The most important outcome of the wraparound program is that the child is able to thrive in a permanent home.”

Facilitators of the wraparound program meet periodically with Vista Del Mar staff to set plans and goals for the families they serve.

While Vista Del Mar may look different than it did 100 years ago, for many clients, little has changed. Schools and counselors often refer harried parents facing tough decisions to the agency as they seek a place that caters to children who have failed to thrive in other educational settings.

“Kids have troubles and [parents] go to local schools and ask for help,” Lefferman said. “Professionals in the community all know about Vista, so they reach out.”

With more than 40 programs that reach nearly 6,000 clients each year, Vista Del Mar aims to serve everyone who comes through its doors. On site, the campus houses educational programs as well as therapeutic services. Through collaborations with the community, Vista Del Mar staff members also work in locations around the city, such as with Home-SAFE (Services Aiding Family Equilibrium), based in the Hollywood area, which offers education for pregnant and parenting teens. And in conjunction with Family Service of Santa Monica, the organization helps to provide educational services to youth and adults on the Westside.

Vista Del Mar’s adoption services have become a go-to resource for the Jewish community. Through three adoption programs — foster-adopt, international adoption and domestic infant adoption — the organization places approximately 195 children into adoptive families each year.

Despite its growth over the past 100 years, Vista Del Mar, like many other nonprofits, has weathered financial difficulties. Last year, the facility had to cut $2 million from its $38 million operating budget, which took the form of 80 layoffs.

“The last two years have been a struggle,” said Carol Katzman, board chair. “These have been challenging times.”

Programs are funded by state and federal money as well as donations. And while some of the organization’s most prolific donors are Jewish — “our largest donor base is the Jewish community,” Lefferman said — Vista Del Mar serves far fewer Jewish children than it once did, leading some to question whether it is, in fact, still a Jewish organization.

Lefferman dismisses these concerns, saying that the Jewish faith runs through the heart of what the organization is trying to accomplish.

“We are driven through Jewish core values,” he said. “Tikkun olam is what drives our board.”

And Vista Del Mar retains some services that are designed solely for Jewish youth. Several years ago, the organization launched Nes Gadol, a program that offers b’nai mitzvah training along with peer mentoring to teens on the autism spectrum.

“We had parents who didn’t know what to do with their child, having a child with no language, and they found love and support” through Nes Gadol, Katzman said.

Many of the changes that Vista Del Mar has undergone recently have been strenuous, especially since the all-volunteer board is composed of many men and women who have been involved with the organization for decades. But Lefferman recalls that when the idea was floated to shift Vista Del Mar’s focus from a live-in facility to a facility that works to keep children in stable homes, the first person to agree to the switch was one of their most senior board members.

Whether kids are living on campus or coming once a week for services, Lefferman stresses that the goal of the organization has remained essentially the same over the years — to find the good and the strength in each child.

“We’re looking for ability, not disability,” he said. “You can dance? Great, we’ll dance with you.”

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