Petaluma People Services Center Executive Director Launches New Programs During Pandemic


Elece Hempel was forced to face a difficult reality that many successful businessmen faced when she picked up her son from school one day.

She was so unfamiliar with the office staff that they demanded to see her ID before she could leave with her fourth year son.

Hempel, 59, now executive director of the Petaluma People Services Center, was stunned. The pace and attractiveness of her job in San Francisco nearly two decades ago had made her a distant figure in parts of her child’s life.

“For someone who loves people so much, I didn’t even know the people who guided my family’s future,” Hempel recalls. “It was shocking to me.”

It was a moment that shattered his career. For years, Hempel has built a reputation across the West Coast as someone who can help private startups achieve lucrative initial public offerings. His daily trips sometimes included charter flights. She’s had business connections with people like Vice President Al Gore, dot-com entrepreneur David Hayden, and television writer Norman Lear.

But that day at her son’s school humiliated her, Hempel said. She has turned her attention to her immediate community in Petaluma and, over the past 16 years, has helped make the PPSC a rigid backbone for some of southern Sonoma County’s most vulnerable residents.

Through natural disasters, a recession and now a global pandemic, the association has always been at the forefront of the relief effort, mobilizing hundreds of volunteers and launching emergency programs to fill any gaps that arise. The coronavirus epidemic that has hit the global economy and caused a host of hardship for people around the world is no different.

The PPSC has adapted several senior services to help the population of Petaluma most susceptible to COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus. Programs that offer hot meals daily have become mobile; voluntary transportation services have expanded to help the elderly stay indoors; and new initiatives, such as “You are not alone”, ensure that no one feels isolated, while keeping the total 60 programs under the banner of the PPSC.

“We never really know how she does what she does,” PPSC board member Katherine Wells said of Hempel. “It’s like there’s a clone of her. She is present at all community meetings and events. It’s the effort she puts in the rest of the year that makes her successful at times like this.

The PPSC launched a service on Monday to help the growing number of people who have lost their jobs and never applied for unemployment benefits. Agency staff now help callers complete their applications and navigate the resources available to anyone in financial difficulty.

The nonprofit Petaluma has also fashioned its senior cafe to offer curbside pickup and created the “You Are Not Alone” program, which provides daily prompts to volunteers who call elderly residents who are missing. this sense of community during the stay-at-home order.

Hempel expects demand for these and several other long-standing initiatives to increase as the impacts of the coronavirus shutdown continue to take shape, she said. Mental health counseling has moved to a telephone service through the Mary Isaak Center. Petaluma Bounty Farm’s food distribution, which provides fresh produce to low-income residents, is expanding its reach. Calls for the fair housing program amid growing uncertainties about paying rent have exploded. Each program is also offered in Spanish.

Hempel credits its staff of more than 70 people, many of whom act as if they are running their own nonprofit, with its agile approach whenever the community of Petaluma goes through a crisis, she said.

Petaluma Mayor Teresa Barrett echoed this sentiment and said she is more comfortable knowing the community has the infrastructure in place with nonprofits like the PPSC that s ‘always intensify when disaster strikes.

“It’s remarkable how they continue to evolve. They’re not stuck in a paradigm, ”Barrett said. “(Hempel) brings the same energy to it that she probably did to close multi-million dollar deals. And frankly, that’s more important. It’s all about real human interaction.

Hempel said the PPSC has the ability to stay nimble through tough times thanks to a recurring question that animates it: “How difficult could this be?” “

“Community conversation is not the limit of urban growth,” she said. “It’s recognizing that your community is with who you are. If everyone in your community is taken care of, the world is a better place. “

You can contact Editor-in-Chief Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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