By April Charlton

Contributing Writer

Everyone who enjoys sampling gourmet fare coupled with great wine, while helping a good cause, should get ready to have their taste buds tantalized during the annual Cooking Up Dreams fundraiser and chef competition.

To fund services for Santa Barbara County’s low-income, at-risk youth, the Family Service Agency will host its fourth annual Cooking Up Dreams event — the agency’s biggest fundraiser of the year — from 6 to 10 p.m. Saturday, April 7, at the Santa Barbara Carriage Museum, 129 Castillo St.

“This is our signature event,” said FSA Director of Development and Communications Katie Jacobs. “It’s a fun and different way to highlight what Family Service Agency does.”

Established in 1899, Family Service Agency works to improve the health and well-being of the county’s most vulnerable children, families and seniors by providing them access to food, shelter and other basic needs. It also provides infant and early-childhood home visits around the county, including the Santa Ynez Valley.

The organization, which recently merged with the Santa Maria Youth & Family Center, also provides youth mentoring, case management, substance abuse treatment, advocacy and a wide array of mental health programs.

Proceeds from the popular Cooking Up Dreams event help ensure critical funds are available for FSA’s youth enrichment programs, which include Big Brothers Big Sisters as well as school-based counseling and youth behavioral health, according to FSA Marketing Manager Marianne McCarthy.

The event asks chefs at local restaurants, such as The Finch and Fork, to create tasty, bite-sized samples in a contest determined by attendees’ votes.

The theme of this year’s Cooking Up Dreams is “Now More Than Ever,” which will allow FSA to showcase what the organization has done in and for the community during the last 100-plus years, while also highlighting emerging needs.

“While we want to celebrate our 119 years (of service), we also want to highlight the relevancy of our agency through the ages,” McCarthy said.

The agency has been working to provide resources to families looking to become more integrated into the community, which McCarthy said is definitely an emerging need within the organization.

“We also want to talk about how we have adapted … and the focus of our immediate needs,” she added.

The gala will include historical information about FSA and its services as well as a presentation about the organization’s compassion centers, which provided counseling at school campuses — Cleveland, Cold Springs and Santa Barbara High School — where students were directly affected by the deadly Jan. 9 Montecito mudslides.

FSA’s Family Resource Centers, which on average serve more than 3,000 families annually with basic needs, parenting skills and more, were also available to help people affected by the Thomas Fire the mudslides, Jacobs said.

As the county’s only long-term care ombudsman, FSA also helped with the evacuation and relocation of senior residents in long-term care facilities on the South Coast during the mudslides.

“We provide a lot of wrap-around services,” Jacobs said, adding that adults are also referred to FSA to help with state services, such as applying for CalFresh or CalWorks, through a youth’s involvement in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program.

“Cooking Up Dreams generally supports all of our programs,” she explained. “It celebrates our programs for kids and supports FSA in all of the work we do.”

Last year, the event raised nearly $150,000 and FSA’s leadership team hopes this year to attract at least that much, which McCarthy stressed is vital to the viability of the organization’s programs and services offered at sites in Carpinteria, Santa Barbara, Guadalupe, Lompoc and Santa Maria.

“It is one of our main sources of unrestricted funding,” McCarthy said about the money raised through Cooking Up Dreams ticket sales and sponsorships.

“Funding we can apply to programs as needed is really critical,” she added. “This allows us to apply funding to services typically not funded (with grants or state money). The money goes a long way.”

Cooking Up Dreams is more than a typical gala in that attendees not only get to sample gourmet plates from leading local restaurants and chefs, while sipping wine, but they also participate in the event’s culinary competition that pits chef against chef for the judge’s and people’s choice awards, Jacobs said.

Youth involved with FSA’s Big Brothers Big Sisters program also serve as greeters at the fundraiser, wearing white chef’s hats at the door as they usher people into the festivities.

“They are great ambassadors for us,” Jacobs said. “People who like food and community should come. It’s just a really fun event.”

For tickets, call Family Service Agency at 805-965-1001 or visit