Interview with Marie Bernard, Executive Director, Sunnyvale Community Services
We sat down with Marie to discuss what drives her work preventing homelessness and hunger in Silicon Valley’s second-largest city through financial aid, food, and other assistance.
Can you give an overview of your organization?
Sunnyvale Community Services (SCS) prevents homelessness and hunger in our local community by providing clients with nutritious food, emergency financial assistance, case management, and referrals to other community resources.
SCS is one of the seven Emergency Assistance Network (EAN) agencies that together cover all areas of Santa Clara County.
How has the organization grown since it was founded?
SCS was founded in 1970, more than 50 years ago. In all that time, we have never turned away an eligible client in need of assistance.
Growth has been constant, driven by community needs. The jobs-housing imbalance, shortage of affordable homes, growing income divide, and economic crises like the Dot Com bust, Great Recession, and the pandemic all influence community needs.
In any crisis, lower earners are the first to be hurting and the last to recover, if they ever do. SCS has learned to respond nimbly to changing challenges. We're growing in both services and efficiency and making the most of the resources available. Today, our administrative and fundraising costs are 10.6 percent of our operating expenses, very low for a non-profit organization.
Last year, we served more than 10,000 clients — an increase of 50 percent over five years. We project that that need will continue to grow, and we anticipate serving up to 13,000 annually in the next five years.
We believe by intervening at the earliest point of crisis allows clients the strongest opportunity for long-term self-sufficiency. Over the years, we have expanded our programs to include case management and wraparound services for those at the highest risk for homelessness and expanded our partnerships to connect clients with supportive services.
What’s the driving force behind your work?
We are driven by the belief that everyone deserves a home and food on the table. Our services are focused on providing our community the dignity and security of having their basic needs met.
What motivates SCS – the Why behind your passion and Why you work so hard to achieve your goals?
We are motivated by compassion and the strong belief that every person in our community deserves a home and nutritious foods. By preventing homelessness, we can interrupt what could otherwise be a generation's long cycle of poverty. What we do, helps people make the most of the resources they have. Without having to sacrifice rent, food, or medical care.
When children are security housed, they can succeed in school; seniors who are nourished can stay more independent; and with a bit of help paying medical bills or utilities, low-income families can stay focused on working toward self-sufficiency without teetering into homelessness. Knowing the impact of our services drives us in our work every day.
As a non-profit, what has been your biggest challenge and how did the organization overcome it?
We have had to stay dedicated to delivering services that fall within our mission and areas of expertise. That can be difficult. The issues leading to and exacerbating poverty are complicated.
We have coped with this challenge by building on our strengths and working closely with a comprehensive network of over 50 community agencies and service providers. We remain focused on our core mission to prevent homelessness and hunger in our local community. Our local focus reinforces our role as a central hub connecting clients to benefits and services they are entitled to receive.
By focusing our services on our mission and advocating for our clients beyond our agency boundaries, we help ensure cohesive and coordinated service delivery. We all work toward the same goal — helping clients thrive — by leveraging resources and expertise for maximum benefit to the client in need.
What are some of the ways your organization has had to make changes due to COVID-19?
The pandemic has impacted our business in myriad ways. When COVID-19 reached our community, our first concern was for client and staff safety. As a safety net agency, we needed to remain open although, we closed our doors to walk-in traffic.
We installed an outdoor intercom system to speak with clients to facilitate an exchange of physical documents. We conducted more visits via phone and texting to reach our clients.
The community needs surged from the pandemic’s start. Our requests for financial aid grew to six times our usual rate within a month, and cars began lining up for groceries. For safety reasons, we had to stop accepting many donations of food and goods from community members. Which required us to purchase necessities for our clients.
We also had to pivot to conduct business without the aid of the 2200 volunteers we generally see on-site working in our warehouse over the course of the year, which greatly increased staff workload.
The good news is that our community has generously rallied to help us with financial donations, which we immediately put to use to help the neighbors we serve.
“If I could spend 30 minutes with a person of import, it would be….
I would like to have Vice-President Kamala Harris’ ear for 30 minutes. She is knowledgeable about issues facing residents in the Bay Area and has the purview to make changes that impact our region and our nation.
We are facing serious issues that have become progressively more threatening and complex over the years. The widening wage gap and other disparities make our region’s residents highly vulnerable to a growing problem of homelessness.
We urgently need a comprehensive overhaul of our nation’s approach to housing — actions based on the foundational belief that housing is a human right. We need to closely examine and enhance requirements and incentives associated with providing affordable homes in every community. Incentives will be key in ensuring buy in from people in every segment of our region.
My favorite part of the day is 5pm on food distribution day because…
During the pandemic, we have continued our drive-through grocery distributions, giving healthy food to nearly 1000 families in a day. The team is generally exhausted but beaming with the knowledge that they have lessened the burden for so many. The staff and volunteers are determined not to quit until everything is put away and ready for the next day’s operations. It is inspiring to see the dedication and heart-felt teamwork that is renewed every single day.
But my favorite days of the year are our “Head to Toe” back-to-school “Backpack Days!” That’s when more than 1600 local children receive brand-new school supplies and a gift card that allows them to purchase new school shoes and other essentials; so they are ready to learn. These children are our future, and their excitement is contagious!
How can people support your organizations work and mission?
There are several ways to support Sunnyvale Community Services in our work, not only in the direct services we provide but in helping us build a regional infrastructure that supports our mission.
Donations are the most critical need. Community support enables us to respond nimbly to client and community needs. That means more people stay housed and nourished. Intervening at the earliest possible point not only saves individuals and families from the devastation of homelessness, but it also saves the community thousands of dollars in more expensive services that are required to re-house an individual or family who has lost a home.
Community members can also help support our mission by learning about and advocating for legislative initiatives that strengthen the safety net for individuals and families at risk.
About Sunnyvale Community Services
Sunnyvale Community Services prevents homelessness and hunger in Silicon Valley’s second-largest city by providing financial aid, food, and other assistance.
For more information visit: https://svcommunityservices.org/