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Behind 40 Years of 'People Helping People': Pat Porto's ATCAA Story

Pat Porto in her office at ATCAA's Jackson Service Center

Story by: Tori Bors

Published: August 24, 2021

Nearly 40 years after she was a young mother of three little ones and new to the area, one of the Mother Lode's servant-leaders and youth programs mavens looks back on her community service path.

Pat Porto, Family Resource Services director at Amador Tuolumne Community Action Agency (ATCAA), ​has overseen a variety of youth and family programs in Amador County. Among them have been a child therapy program; literacy support; the Individual Development Account (IDAs), where foster youth learn to master their personal and financial future; community ​parenting education and home visiting parenting through services offered under ATCAA's Head Start family support umbrella.

Founded in 1981 in partnership with Amador and Tuolumne counties' governments and other entities to access local needs and harness federal, state, and local program funding, ATCAA is one of the state's oldest and most successful Community Action Agencies. Now, during its year-long 40th Anniversary celebration, the agency is sharing some behind-the-scenes stories of employees, clients, and others who are part of its continuing "People Helping People" success.

When Pat came onboard at ATCAA in the early 1980s, the agency was newly minted and she and her husband were new to Amador County, living in Pioneer. An at-home mom who left her hairdressing career behind as the Women's Movement was on the rise, she followed the lead of a friend who had been hired to help open a youth center in Plymouth, dryly adding, "I had three little children at the time, and I ​didn't do anything without taking these kids with me!"

Having run a home daycare in Sacramento for all the nieces and nephews in her large family, she says it felt like a natural transition to become and support community caregivers. "We were open three days a week after school and in town so kids could walk to the fairgrounds, which were nearby...we thought it was a perfect situation for a rural town. Kids just sort of showed up ​because parents sometimes weren't home. We figured we'd let them run around, burn off energy, do arts and crafts, and later we offered snacks."

A year or two later, ATCAA opened a youth center in Pioneer, another rural outpost, and Pat used a van to transport the kids from school to the center. While the activities were meant to be recreational, she recalls, "We would have speakers, go to the library in Jackson once a month, visit a nursing home [where the kids would] do arts and crafts and interact with the was fun with educational and perspective broadening, interactive community components. It was a catalyst for me to learn some of the county kids had not been to a library before that."

While Pat admits she liked being a "worker bee," the youth center was dependent on funding that dried up. When ATCAA began getting funding for a home visiting program to serve clients mostly referred by other agencies, she became part of that effort, and ​also ​facilitated a child abuse prevention program ​in the schools. As new grants came in herservices expanded into ​community parenting education and parenting support at the jail. "I had lots of hats," she agrees.

She became immersed in a para-professionals in-home visiting field, where her grass-root life experience ​was an asset. "It was modeled ​from a military home visiting program to support families living away from extended families," Pat explains. "All of these things I was doing sort of melded into each other, and I went back to school and got an Associate degree in Human Services with ATCAA's support ."

She gives huge kudos to Head Start (HS) and Early Head Start (EHS), where she ​provides Amador parenting programs. "Everything I have done with ATCAA is about prevention -- and it all starts with kids and who is caring for them. I am always in awe of the staff, leadership, and function -- and it hasn't changed except to get better. Last year with the pandemic was a test -- and ​they remained grounded and were there for families."

The experiences Pat has had through ATCAA speaks to what the agency's purpose has always been, she says. "We...serve those with the most need -- and sometimes we are them too. I was a local person who found a way...many of us received program help such as through Head Start, had opportunities to complete education, and then go on to jobs in education, prevention, and service."

Pat is unabashedly proud of ATCAA's mission, helping bridge local needs. "For so many people the programs are lifesavers. I see a lot of that through ATCAA's Energy Assistance and Housing programs. You just don't know when you have touched someone's life just by doing what you do. We don't hear back in real-time but sometimes it comes out​. And when we are serving someone, we can offer more...and they seem more trusting to learn about and accept more services and referrals."

She is currently helping cheer-lead an effort for Amador to form a community coalition where county agencies, government departments, and other organizations can coalesce in support of youth ​substance use prevention. Understanding community systems is one of the roots adult involvement, schools, and further community needs -- ​change can grow from that. We need to further support, enhance and connect involved, affordable, available childcare and recreation...provide alternative activities for kids besides sports​, and offer youth substance use prevention activities in safe places, where there is not a lot of travel required."

With 37 years of ATCAA service under her belt, Pat jokes, "It's been a freakin' long kids grew up with ATCAA, where I was able to juggle my work along with my kids' schedules, family illnesses, and ​an aging parent." Noting her husband worked for SMUD, finally retiring after years of commuting, she confides, "My own family told me, 'you could make so much more if you worked in Sacramento and got a government job," but I wanted to stay here and help the community from inside. It may not pay the highest and you are always living on the edge with grants -- but I can still be part of and serve my family and community by working here. I love the people I work for and with and what I do!"

To learn more about ATCAA, its programs, 40th anniversary activities open to the public, and ways to help and/or access services, click here

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