Interview With Community Action Council’s Viola Robertson
Like Costco and Macy’s, the holidays come early to Benicia’s Community Action Council. In mid-October, toys were already piling up in the office that serves Benicians who need help with food, utility bills and rent. The agency’s employees and volunteers provide a safety net while they help people become self-sufficient.
The holidays are the CAC’s busiest time of the year. Executive Director Viola Robertson expects the agency will provide meals and gifts to about 160 families and more than 60 seniors this year, with the help and support of community members. So weeks ago, the stack of Barbies and Hot Wheels was growing in her office.
“I love kids and seniors. They’re my weak spots,” Viola says. She will work non-stop through the holidays to help everyone get what they need and what they want.
Viola, 65, is the agency’s only full-time employee. She oversees five part-time workers, eight regular volunteers and an annual budget of $254,000.
A Vallejo resident since she was 11, Viola raised five daughters, nine foster children and six grandchildren. She started working for CAC in 1980 as the outreach director. She became executive director in 1994.
She’s seen the agency grow and survive several difficult times, including the latest economic downturn. Now she’s preparing for retirement in some form. She is training CAC Operations Manager Carla Juell to become executive director.
“I want to retire, but the board keeps saying, ‘Can’t you stay awhile?’” Viola says. “But I feel like I’m getting older and I’d like to slow down a little bit.”
What brought you to the CAC?
I like helping people. I went to college, graduated in 1980—my major was criminal justice. I spent some time working at CMF (California Medical Facility) in Vacaville and decided I didn’t want to work in a locked facility. I wanted to work on the other end and help prevent people from ending up in a locked facility.
All those years ago, they had all these jobs programs. They could use those programs again now. I started with the Cedar program and I was a site manager at the Florence Douglas Center in Vallejo for their senior meals program. Then there was a job opening for outreach director at CAC and I applied.
What was CAC like when you arrived?
When I started in 1980, CAC was only doing home-delivered meals and tax returns. We served about 20 meals a day, five days a week. We were buying our meals from the SCEOC (the now-defunct Solano County Economic Opportunity Council) central kitchen because we didn’t have our own kitchen. There was a full-time director and one other part-time person. I worked part-time doing home visits and letting people know what social services were available.
Now we serve 60 meals a day—sometimes more—five days a week, cooked in our own kitchen.
Besides our regular services we do about 40 to 45 applications a month for the Chronicle Season of Sharing for rental assistance. That’s for the whole county because we administrate that program for all of Solano.
We also process REACH and HEAP applications for PG&E bills. Technically, we are the Salvation Army branch here in Benicia.
What’s the most pressing need you see?
About 98 percent of our clients get food. Right behind that is PG&E and rental assistance.
Are there people who stand out in your memory from your years at CAC?
One that sticks with me was a client who was on drugs and had a son with a lazy eye. I worked with the Lions Club and had an appointment set up in Oakland for the boy and she didn’t show up. … I think about that because I think we could have made a real difference in his life.
Another time we had a senior who had cancer so bad that you could see it on her chest. I would go see her and come back and cry. She died and it turned out she had $40,000 under her mattress, but she wouldn’t pay to go to a doctor.
We had one lady who was in nursing school and we helped her. She’s now an RN and, as a matter of fact, she sent in a donation last year with a note that said she was living up to her promise to help when she could.
What are you seeing now, three years into difficult economic times?
We’re seeing people who used to donate to us are now our clients.
I struggle to keep the doors open. We were closed on Fridays, but I still worked. The city found us $4,300 so we are open on Fridays again. If the cook is sick, I cook. I’ll do anything to save a dollar around here. We’ve been selling dinners to raise money.
We have had some savings. Our PG&E bill used to be $500 and some a month, and that’s down to about $100 a month since we got the solar panels in April. They were installed with money that was part of the Valero settlement with the city. That’s been a lifesaver.
How many hours do you work a week?
Don’t ask! I won’t tell.
How do you spend your weekends?
I’m here usually—cleaning up, doing paperwork, throwing out things that shouldn’t be here.
Is there a slow time of year?
Not really (she and Carla laugh). Come January, we’ll start helping with taxes.
Where do you find the energy to do all this?
It motivates me. I like being busy all the time. I don’t like sitting around—that’s why I hate meetings. I like doing things. …
I used to go home and cry, but I’ve learned it’s better to find a solution.
Community Action Council Year-Round Needs and Services Provided
“If it wasn’t for the community support, we wouldn’t survive,” “We appreciate everything the community does for us.” – Viola Robertson, Executive Director, Community Action Council
Ramen-style noodles and noodle cups
CAC provides the following services throughout the year:
Case management (monthly sessions to help people become self-sufficient)
Home-delivered meals to seniors
USDA food distribution
Help with online food stamp applications
Help with Social Security applications
PG&E bill assistance
Job counseling (writing resumes and searching for work)
Free dental services for children
Summer camp for children
Referral services to social service agencies
Education regarding available social service programs
Thanksgiving community dinner
Holiday adoption program
Senior holiday dinner
Matches donors with recipients for furniture, appliances, etc.