Neighbors Helping Neighbors

HELP of Ojai is a community-supported nonprofit in California that demonstrates the power of neighbors helping the most vulnerable members of their community.

| November / December 2017


A volunteer serves meals at the group lunch.

Photo by Mariana Schulze

California’s Ojai Valley is a luxury getaway for southern Californians, who flock to the Valley’s gorgeous spa, health and spiritual retreats. Hemmed in by the Topa Topa Mountains, the Valley was originally home to the Chumash Indians and is said to have mystical qualities. Today the stunningly beautiful area is home to boutique hotels, a robust farmers market, music festivals and New Age shops.

Yet away from the $3,000-a-night penthouses and custom spa therapy sessions, the Ojai Valley struggles with increasing rates of poverty, joblessness and homelessness, due in part to the rise of its high-end tourism industry. Despite its reputation as a tourist destination, however, the Ojai Valley is also home to a tightly connected community, where large swaths of the population come together to volunteer, donate or engage with a single organization: HELP of Ojai.

Community HELP

Founded in the mid-1970s, HELP of Ojai is a bustling nonprofit with a $1.5-million annual budget made up of a combination of grants, its own revenue-generating operations (it runs the town’s biggest thrift store, to name one) and generous contributions from the community, which clearly understands how vital the program is to the well-being of the entire Valley. The community donates about 40 percent of the organization’s overall funding, raising about $500,000 each year — significant in an area with only around 25,000 residents. HELP of Ojai also welcomes more than 250 volunteers each year, which means more than 10 percent of Valley residents give time to this one organization.

“People take it seriously how to keep HELP of Ojai healthy,” says Terri Wolfe, HELP of Ojai’s executive director, who has worked with the group since 2009. “They understand the concept of supporting basic needs, of neighbors helping neighbors through service, financial support and also word of mouth — being the eyes and ears out there making sure we’re taking care of the most vulnerable.”

It seems nearly everyone in the Valley interacts with HELP in some way — whether as a donor, a volunteer, a client or family member, or simply by helping alert the organization when a senior, teen or family needs assistance. “People call us all the time,” Wolfe says. “It’s almost like a Valley-wide neighborhood watch. If they’re concerned about a family with children or a senior, they’ll call us and we’ll go out and make a house call and see how we can help … It’s a great partnership between residents and an organization like HELP of Ojai. It’s very straightforward, and they know who to call. It just flows and works really well.”

One key reason HELP of Ojai is able to interact with the community so effectively is its broad spectrum of services. “HELP of Ojai is the only full-time basic needs nonprofit in the Ojai Valley,” Wolfe says. “So what that means for us is that we do a lot of things. We have a breadth of services that spans food, shelter and access to health care for families with school-aged children and seniors. Those are our two focus groups and those are our three focus areas.”

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