Costa Mesa organization offers help in and out of the pandemic

Share Our Selves' Homeless Specialist James Silva works with a volunteer in the organization's food bank to bring food to hungry people in the county. SOS provides an assortment of programs to people throughout Orange County and is celebrating its 50-year anniversary this year.

Share Our Selves, the Costa Mesa based community health center, proudly turns 50 this year and in the midst of the pandemic the need for its services is more apparent than ever.

From humble beginnings at the steps of a local church to its permanent campus on Superior Avenue, the organization has become a fixture within the community and has lifted up hundreds of thousands of people along the way.

Michael McGlinn, the organization’s director of Social Services, remembers how his mother — one of the founding members of the group — used to deliver lunches between his soccer practices when SOS was just beginning.  From humble beginnings, the group’s efforts grew and in 1990 the current location of the campus was purchased in what was then the industrial side of Costa Mesa. 

Today, SOS offers medical, dental and mental health services, social services, legal clinics and a daily food pantry staffed entirely by volunteers.  According to officials, 85 cents of every $1 donated directly to program services.

McGlinn said he has been with the organization since before he really knew he was part of it. He and his family, including his parents who were among the founding members, are still involved, which speaks to the type of organization that Share Our Selves is.  It is rooted in family and community values and continues to attract support and recognition of its many accomplishments and ongoing commitment to the community it serves.

The SOS campus is charming, with native plants throughout and an impressive yet soothing mural which simply states ‘You are loved,’ in cool blues and neutral pastels. Add to that the warm and friendly faces of the staff and volunteers and a sense of being in an oasis comes to mind.  Share Our Selves is not your average social services center.  

“We love this mural, to remind everyone who comes on campus that they are loved, that they are cared for and they are welcomed and they’re not judged.  That’s also one of the things that we value is being non-judgemental and that’s part of our dignity core values,” said Imelda Buncab, the organization’s volunteer services manager. “We know you’re here to meet a need and that’s what we’re here for.”

By practicing and exemplifying these types of values, the organization has managed to attract top talent like its new chief medical officer, Dr. Jay W. Lee, a family physician and former president of the California Academy of Family Physicians and former director of health policy at Long Beach Memorial Hospital.  

“He came in just before the (COVID) crisis. He came in — like walked through the door — just as this pandemic hit, and he actually stepped into the leadership role and has done a fantastic job at it. We’re very happy about that,” McGlinn said of Lee.

Lee recently served as the director of primary care at CareMore Health and as the chief medical officer of the Venice Family Clinic. He said he loved both jobs but living in Orange County and commuting on the 405 to LA everyday was taking a toll on his young children. When he saw the opportunity to do what he loves in his own community he knew it was the right move.

“What it boils down to is the reason why I entered medicine to begin with. I like to say that we should all become the physicians we wrote about in our personal statements. They should be the roadmap or the origin story for why we do what we do and with the corporatization of healthcare it’s become harder and harder for physicians to find places where they can truly be themselves,” Lee said.

Lee said SOS allows him to pursue the goals he always intended to.

“It’s one of those things where you don’t really do this for the money, you do it for the fulfillment and ultimately it boils down to the mission of our organization which is — beyond the clinical delivery aspect — becoming the advocates that our patients need us to be. For me, that’s the next evolution beyond becoming the physician that you wrote about in your personal statement,” Lee said.

Share Our Selves operates four medical health centers within Orange County, SOS Community Health Center in Costa Mesa, SOS-El Sol Wellness Center in Santa Ana, SOS Children and Family Health Center in Newport Beach and SOS Community Health Center in Mission Viejo.

“Orange County is the sixth largest county in the United States yet we don’t have a county hospital, so anybody who is vulnerable or below the poverty line essentially has to find care through a community healthcare network or be lucky enough to pay private practice rates,” Lee said.

According to its website, Share Our Selves is one of 256 health centers nationally to be designated as a Healthcare for the Homeless provider. The organization also works at a shelter in Anaheim with about 200 clients as an on-site clinic, Lee said.

He added that the organization's goal is to provide comprehensive care for clients and make the campus as friendly and integrated as possible. When a patient can't be cared for on-site, Lee said the organization then coordinates care in a way that's seamless for the patient.

Share Our Selves offers a pharmacy on-site for patients and has modified all of its operations to create a low COVID-19 environment, with social distancing and masks, and will soon be implementing temperature taking on-site.  

To respond to the need for continued care and the need for added safety measures during the pandemic, Share Our Selves, under the direction of Lee, is maintaining much of its patient care via tele-medicine.

“In short order we’ve gone from 100% face-to-face and zero tele-visits to now, we’re up to about 70% tele-visits and 30% in person,” Lee said.

However, the challenges brought about by COVID-19 have impacted SOS’s ability to meet the needs of its clients. Due to social distancing requirements, the organization has had to scale back some of the services that it typically offers and staff members are doing double duty filling in where volunteers currently cannot because of safety precautions.

“Among volunteers our average age is 68 years old, so we told them to stay home for their own good and they’ve done that, and so we’ve brought in a skeleton crew of younger volunteers,” McGlinn said. 

Hundreds of families are relying on Share Our Selves to help them get through the crisis, whether it be in the form of supplemental groceries, utility assistance, help with paying their automobile registration or gift cards to help them meet basic needs.

"I believe our services are essential and that we are front-line workers to ensure that our community is fed and their health needs are being met," Volunteer Services Manager Buncab said.

In response to the pandemic, the organization has seen a spike in people coming in to the food pantry everyday.

“The month prior, end of February to March, we were doing about 170 bags of food a day, which was low for us. The economy was doing pretty well and people were eating better, so our numbers were down. They’ve kicked up since, to averaging about 250 bags a day, and then this week we’re at over 295 bags a day," McGlinn said in late April.

Additionally, the organization is working with a skeleton crew but continues to staff the food bank, as well as offer rental assistance, help with utilities and ongoing case management.

The crisis has also generated a surge of good will from donors so while staffing is down donations are up. Needs are being met but comprehensive services usually offered have been curtailed.

Rental assistance and utility help is continuing and can be handled remotely and safely, McGlinn said, adding that calls are way up and the organization can only take about 25 applications each month. The assistance offered isn't full rent but rather helping with portions of it.

McGlinn stressed that although most cities in California are offering some form of relief to renters in the form of moratoriums on evictions, many of the organization's clients are still unclear as to what their rights are and how to advocate for themselves throughout the process. 

He added that many residents don't understand the state's guidelines on evictions. In Costa Mesa, there is a moratorium on evictions until May 31 with 120 days after to take care of the rent. Residents will need to prove it is COVID-related by presenting landlords with something in writing that explains why renter's can't pay.

Other services provided by Share Our Selves include mail service for the homeless, which allows them a place from which to send and receive documents such as applications for drivers licenses, social security cards and other official business.  

The organization also has a clothes closet stocked with business attire for individuals going on job interviews and also with weather-specific clothing. Additionally, it provides hygiene products including feminine hygiene, toiletries and diapers as well as dog and cat food for homeless members’ animals.

Share Our Selves is a model community health center that addresses health in a comprehensive way, recognizing that wellness — overall well being — is an integral part of health.  When someone is struggling with financial issues, housing insecurity or food insecurity, their health is impacted, Share Our Selves places an emphasis on treating the whole person and meeting them right where they are at, Buncab said.

For information on services, volunteering or donations please contact shareourselves.org.

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