A Flourishing Culture of
How does an idea, conceived on a shoestring budget in a back office at Sonoma State University, grow into a $22-million-a-year human services organization? The venture in question is the California Institute on Human Services, brainchild of SSU professor Tony Apolloni. And while rumor has it that part of the answer has to do with Apolloni being a pretty capable businessman, exactly how this organization grew has more to do with a vision for serving people in need than with healthy budgets, and much more to do with a commitment that had its inception long before Apolloni began his tenure at SSU in 1978.
While growing up in Tennessee, Apolloni lived with his mother — a strong advocate for services for people with disabilities, decades before those services became legal rights — and with his sister, who was born with a developmental disability and for whom Apolloni currently serves as legal guardian. It is safe to say that CIHS is Apolloni’s passion generalized, a passion that he inherited from his mother, that started with his sister, and that now shows its face in the range of human service projects at CIHS. These projects work to redress the lives of people suffering from domestic violence, individuals living with disabilities or facing debilitating economic disadvantage, immigrant populations who struggle against language barriers. And more.
Early Childhood Education
Much of the work at CIHS involves training professionals who go on to work with people who are directly in need. The Hilton/Early Head Start Training Program is a case in point. In its seventh year at CIHS, this national effort has developed its own approach to teaching Head Start teachers and parents how to effectively include and nurture very young children with disabilities in Head Start preschool and daycare settings. The training is called SpecialQuest, and it takes four years — quite a commitment for the busy teachers and parents who attend — but their evaluation comments suggest it’s a commitment they’re happy to make. “It was truly an honor to represent this great cause,” one parent wrote. Another typical evaluation reads, “I was so excited to be coming back to SpecialQuest for ‘a charge’ personally and professionally. You did not disappoint me. The results will continue to be realized long after we’re gone.”
Individuals who attend SpecialQuest are not the only ones impressed by the scope of this program. In one year, the training videos created by Hilton/Early Head Start received six separate awards for excellence, and the program’s manager, Linda Brekken, has been recognized nationally more than once for her “vision, belief and dedication to building inclusive communities for all children and adults.”
The existence of this caliber of work and its focus on early childhood education put CIHS in serious contention for the Head Start Bureau’s new National Literacy Center, a consideration that became a reality last fall when the institute was awarded a $3-million-a-year contract for five years from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This new project focuses on helping very young children develop their literacy skills in Head Start centers across the country.
CIHS, however, does not operate strictly on a national level. Its Service Learning unit, under the direction of Julie McClure, helps Sonoma County parents and children from disadvantaged backgrounds gain the language and literacy skills they need to get jobs and improve their lives. It provides local schools with trained tutors and support staff to work with struggling students, and it gives SSU students experience as tutors, mentors and community organizers — paying them in the process. One project in this group, COOL Families, offers evening literacy classes to parents in tandem with daycare for the parents’ children. The combination works. As one parent wrote, “You are really doing a great job. In reality your work helps the children as much as the parents.” Another noted, “I am very happy because, while I try to learn English, you are helping my daughter with homework.”
Other CIHS service projects place SSU students directly in schools to serve as one-on-one tutors or provide after-school academic enrichment. A class in the University’s School of Education, taught by both CIHS staff and SSU faculty, prepares SSU students to be effective tutors and mentors. One Santa Rosa teacher, whose students have benefited from CIHS service learning efforts wrote that “all of my students have made at least several reading levels of growth” as a result of the efforts of these college-age tutors. The SSU students themselves get more than just a paycheck for their efforts. They gain personally — “My kids taught me a lot about perseverance” — and professionally — “It helped me decide on a career path and taught me how to run a classroom.”
Children and Disabilities
The welfare of children in general is a consistent focus at CIHS. Its Family Violence Prevention unit, directed by Diane Nissen, is made up of nine separate projects that address such social concerns as child adoption, child abuse and family violence. The work of this group, as with the early childhood projects, focuses largely on educating professionals, who then are better equipped to work effectively with children and families. This is also the case with the CalSTAT Project (California Service for Technical Assistance and Training), another multi-million-dollar-a year venture that includes a large, federal-state improvement grant designed to support the reform of special education efforts in schools throughout California.
This disabilities-related component is another consistent theme through CIHS. Along with the two already mentioned — CalSTAT and Hilton/Early Head Start — there are several additional projects that develop testing and evaluation mechanisms for very young children with disabilities for the Child Development Division of the California Department of Education. Others work to develop effective supports for young adults with disabilities as they move from school to the world of work, and still others strive to help remove barriers to employment for adults with disabilities. CIHS is currently home to 30 projects, and it continues to expand its horizons.
Part and Parcel of SSU
The organization’s connection to the University also continues to grow. Various CIHS staff teach at SSU, and numerous project managers work directly with SSU professors. The available knowledge and expertise among SSU faculty has made for a rich collaboration as the institute looks for guidance in executing existing projects or designing future ones, developing publications and leading research efforts. In Apolloni’s words, “The driving force behind CIHS is its commitment to taking solutions that come out of research and applying them to real-world problems.” He is convinced that CIHS would not be seeing its current success without a close working relationship with the University.
Culture of Dedication and Hard Work
When CIHS managing director George Triest is asked his opinion about how the institute became so successful, he doesn’t hesitate to reply: “It comes in great part from a dedicated staff. We have people who are brilliant managers with amazing talents, talents that could be translated into huge salaries in the private sector. Instead, they chose to work here, where they make a positive difference in the world. I can’t tell you how inspired I am every day by the energy and passion these people bring to their work.” The institute’s employment enrollment currently hovers around 125 — a 95 percent increase over the original seven who launched the effort in 1978. Triest, an SSU alumnus, had his own start at CIHS in that first year, working as a project coordinator. He holds himself up as an example of what he sees as typical of CIHS culture — “hard work creating opportunity and success.” He is quick to list numerous other CIHS employees who began as student assistants, project assistants or coordinators; moved up the ranks; and now manage their own divisions. He is convinced that this “culture of dedication and hard work, combined with talent and a little luck,” has been a central key to the organization’s success.
Trends over 26 years
While Triest does not see any particular trend in the content of the work being done at CIHS in the quarter-century of its existence, he does see it as a place of significant growth, especially since 1996, when the nine-project Violence Prevention unit was barely a whisper of its present self, and the Service Learning unit, which consists of five projects and currently employs more than 200 SSU students, wasn’t even an idea.
While certainly growing in its capacity and reputation in particular areas, CIHS has not limited its vision on what the future holds. According to Triest, “Cultural trends will help determine that. Gerontology, for example, is a field of growing need,” and one he thinks CIHS could look to address in the next 25 years.