Pacific Clinics’ Head Start Combines Education, Mental Health Services

OUTLOOK file photo Pacific Clinics’ President/CEO Jim Balla and TV news anchor and mental health advocate Ellen Leyva are pictured at last year’s fundraising event for the nonprofit, the Champions of Mental Health annual gala.
OUTLOOK file photo
Pacific Clinics’ President/CEO Jim Balla and TV news anchor and mental health advocate Ellen Leyva are pictured at last year’s fundraising event for the nonprofit, the Champions of Mental Health annual gala.

When Rosa first came to Pacific Clinics for help, the young mother was at the lowest point in her life. A victim of domestic violence, she had finally made a terrifying decision: seek safety for herself and her baby boy, and, in doing so, leave financial security and a home behind.
She felt broken and depressed, and while living at a shelter, Rosa feared for her son’s future. When a contentious custody battle ensued, it tested every fiber of her self-worth and drove her to the brink when she temporarily lost her right to live with Jacob. Worse yet, the young boy had been traumatized, exhibiting behavioral and communication issues by the time she got him back.
Pacific Clinics Champions of Mental Health When: Saturday, May 18, 6 p.m. Where: The Langham Huntington Hotel How: To help support Pacific Clinics’ mission to offer mental health treatment, supportive services and education programs to children, youth, adults, seniors and families, visit to purchase tickets or make a donation.Along the way, however, Rosa had learned of Pacific Clinics and its Head Start/Early Head Start programs, which turned out to be much more than day care — it was comprehensive mental health care and early education combined. A team of caring professionals, including teachers, social workers and therapists, provided wraparound services that helped Jacob overcome his traumatic home experiences.
“I will always be thankful and grateful to Pacific Clinics,” said Rosa (whose last name is being withheld to protect her identity). “This program helped us to restore our family. When he came back to me, I was broken emotionally and it was really hard for me and my son to be together again, but all the little things they taught helped him to cope, helped him express his feelings.”
Now in kindergarten, Jacob is thriving emotionally and scholastically. He even just received the school’s “Good Citizen” award, his mother proudly noted.
Pacific Clinics, meanwhile, is fighting for more success stories. The community-based behavioral health agency is proving its mettle through its results-driven, nationally recognized early education programs. These are aimed at bridging the achievement gap for children of lower-income families who cannot afford preschool, in Pasadena and throughout the Greater San Gabriel Valley. Research continually shows children who receive preschool education have more successful outcomes and are more likely to graduate.
The nonprofit organization recently netted a $13.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to expand Early Head Start in Pasadena, Glendale, Eagle Rock, Highland Park and Rosemead.
With the new grant money, Pacific Clinics will be able to provide services to about 200 children and their families in Pasadena alone, up from 150.
“Head Start programs are essential in providing children and their families with important early learning tools to promote future academic success,” said Pacific Clinics President and CEO Jim Balla. “This grant will positively impact our communities by offering vital early childhood education services and support to local families with young children.”
Pacific Clinics’ Head Start/Early Head Start programs provide comprehensive early childhood education for at-risk children from birth to age 5, and are free to families who qualify. The programs, which are located in multiple sites, served 768 children this past fiscal year. Based on children’s individual needs, the early education program is designed to improve their success at home and in school.
The expanded services aim to bridge the achievement gap for eligible children by focusing on STEM curriculum and enhancing access to quality early education and support services, including health, dental, nutrition and mental health.
Wassy Tesfa, Pacific Clinics’ Head Start services divisional director, said she is thrilled with the grant money, which will help the nonprofit expand facilities locally.
“Head Start is not just about education,” Tesfa emphasized. “In order for a child to learn, they must be healthy, comfortable, fed and emotionally well. We take care of all that and in between.
“We look forward to collaborating with parents and community groups to make a lifelong impact and ensure that children are kindergarten-ready.”
With local housing prices higher than ever, the chances for lower- and even middle-income children to receive professional preschool and educational services are dwindling, Tesfa noted.
The trends related to educational attainment, poverty rates for immigrant families and housing instability are also worrisome, she added. In Pasadena alone, the poverty rate for residents without a high school degree was 27.3%, almost double the rate for the city as a whole. Similarly, the poverty rate for immigrants in Pasadena was 17.3%, compared to only 13% for native residents.
Through partnerships and collaborations with established preschool and day-care locations, Pacific Clinics will be able to further expand its location offerings. The nonprofit is a desired collaborator, Tesfa noted, as it uses grant and federal money to provide training to all site professionals and also makes physical upgrades to outdoor and indoor play and learning areas at the sites.
The most recent grant funding, while greatly appreciated, “is really just a drop in the bucket” to help meet the need, she added, as even middle-income families are struggling to afford early education help.
“This is not a competition over funding,” Tesfa said. “Even if it might just be a drop in the bucket, my ultimate goal is to create more partnerships with more day-care centers so we can pool our resources and increase our reach. I think every child deserves a head start.”
Tesfa and the directors of the Head Start program have refined its science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) focus this past year, aside from expanding its full- and part-day services, parent and prenatal education and health screenings and connection to housing, food, clothing and other resources.
In addition to classroom-centered education, the Early Head Start program offers home-based services for families with children up to age 3 and to expectant mothers. During these weekly visits an educator provides families with support and resources and teaches parents about childhood development and their role as their child’s first teachers. It partners with local school districts, homeless shelters, health-care providers and day-care centers to enhance the program’s capabilities to meet the needs of families.

OUTLOOK photo Pacific Clinics Children and Family Services division director Joseph Ho and Head Start division director Wassy Tesfa united to help bring early education intervention to the nonprofit in 2013.
Pacific Clinics Children and Family Services division director Joseph Ho and Head Start division director Wassy Tesfa united to help bring early education intervention to the nonprofit in 2013.

Dr. Joseph Ho, Pacific Clinics Children and Family Services division director, helped merge the Head Start/Early Head Start program with Pacific Clinics six years ago, after becoming increasingly concerned by research showing how adverse childhood experiences (ACE) have significant negative outcomes on children as adults. The long-term effects of toxic stress on a child over time can lead to obesity, diabetes, alcoholism and other illnesses. Serving children of low-income and at-risk families, including homeless families, through early education can help mitigate those ACE effects, he noted.
“[Pacific Clinics] already had mental health, but creating the early education division is really a new adventure for us,” Ho said. “I think it’s become a perfect marriage, when education and mental health can work together like this. It’s very unique.”
Pacific Clinics has enveloped mental health seemingly into its educational programs. That includes its Trauma Informed Care initiative, an endeavor to improve the understanding, methods of action and treatment and support of families and children who have already experienced trauma as well as possibly reduce the incidence of trauma.
It also launched a mindfulness program in all its classrooms and family child-care homes, encouraging yoga and deep breathing to develop a sense of awareness among children of their bodies.
For Rosa and her son, Pacific Clinics provided a lifeline of support. Apart from providing Jacob with a safe and stable place to learn and reconnect with his feelings, Pacific Clinics also gave Rosa parenting classes and leadership development opportunities. She now serves on the Pacific Clinics’ parent policy council and helps advocate for early education at conferences across the nation.
“I believe in the program. I’ve seen firsthand what it did for me and my child,” said Rosa, who is now a brand ambassador for Microsoft and on track to rebuilding her life. “They’ve helped me every step of the way… they believed in me, and it gave me hope and confidence to push forward. I’m honored to be a part of this organization.”

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