By Raiza Giorgi

Taking over Santa Ynez Valley People Helping People during a pandemic has been the ultimate test for Executive Director Valerie Kissel, a test she says gives her hope that they can get through anything. Kissell succeeded Dean Palius, who served as PHP’s CEO for the past 25 plus years and retired on Aug. 31. 

Photo by Raiza Giorgi
SYV People Helping People Executive Director Valerie Kissel said her staff and board are working on a three-year development plan and identifying gaps in service and more collaborations to help those in need.

“I actually knew Dean for many years working with him for various programs during my tenure at the YMCA,” Kissel said. “I knew these were big shoes to fill, but this type of work stays in your blood, and I am excited to become a member of this agency and continue the mission.”

The new CEO resides in Solvang and came to PHP from Youth and Family Services at the Channel Islands YMCA, where she had served as the executive director since 2016.

Kissel said in just her four years living in the valley she has seen the need grow for affordable housing and food insecurity.

“Even before the pandemic people were experiencing these issues, but no one could have imagined this level,” Kissel said.

In the seven months since the shutdown happened PHP has been on track of tripling their services. 

“It’s frightening, but this community rallies and is so generous and giving,” Kissel said. “Just a few weeks ago we had a family that lost their housing and was living in their car. With one call to the community a man gave the family use of his accessory dwelling unit for low rent until they can find a more permanent solution.” 

She added the nonprofit’s Thursday food giving program at Old Mission Santa Ines is cleaned out each week of between 250-300 bags of food being given out. 

“We are so proud to also partner with the other food resource places in the valley, as we know the residual affects from the pandemic are going to be long lasting,” Kissel said. 

Besides food and housing efforts, PHP has been actively working with their clients on counseling and connecting them with benefit programs like MediCal and teen counseling for anxiety, stress and feeling of self-harm and suicide. 

“We are helping our local youth double what PHP did last year,” Kissel said. “We brought another intern on to handle the demand.” 

Kissel said behind the scenes, her staff and board are working on a three-year development plan and identifying gaps in service and more collaborations with county and state agencies. 

“Because we are in the valley, we often get overlooked by the programs in South and in North County,” she said. “I am hoping we can get more housing support especially.” 

She added PHP is also working on some virtual events, or socially distant events, that will fill the gaps since they weren’t allowed to host their annual polo match and Vino de Suenos events. 

“We are grateful to have the thrift store which provides income which in turn helps support our programs and it also serves the community,” Kissel said.

People Helping People is a 501 c-3 nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of men, women and children in the Santa Ynez Valley, Los Alamos and surrounding areas by addressing emergency and basic needs and furnishing comprehensive integrated family and individual support services. To learn more about PHP, its programs, and ways that you can help, please visit the PHP web site at or call (805) 686-0295.