Net Benefits

Interface provides a valuable social safety net for thousands throughout Ventura County.

By Karen Lindell

Photo by T Christian Gapen

BENEVOLENCE AT WORK: Executive Director Erik Sternad works with Crystal Camarena at the Interface offices in Camarillo. Originally founded as a youth substance-abuse program in 1973, today the organization helps over 30,000 people every year, through 24 p


indness might be immeasurable, but Interface Children and Family Services has achieved some impressive numbers on its mission to help humans. The social services agency, which helps people suffering from mental illness, domestic violence, homelessness and much more, serves some 35,000 people every year in Ventura County and beyond. For some perspective: That’s about the entire population of Moorpark. The comprehensive nonprofit organization serves as a catch-all human services agency, with an extraordinary reach that makes it a valuable resource for the county and the people it helps.

Interface has been a presence in Ventura County for 44 years, starting in 1973, when Ronald Reagan was governor of California. Executive Director Erik Sternad said that the idea for the nonprofit came from “a couple of community members sitting around a [communal table] who were concerned about inadequate mental health, domestic violence and chemical dependency services in the county,” especially for young people. 

“Lots of drug experimentation was going on at that time,” Sternad said, so the first Interface project was a youth substance-abuse program.

But it didn’t stop there. Interface now offers 24 countywide projects in six major areas: mental health services, youth services, family violence intervention, justice, community development and 2-1-1 information and referral. These programs are funded by an $8 million annual budget and through collaborations with other service providers in the county, from government agencies to faith-based and private agencies. Grants, donations, in-kind services, volunteers and about 130 employees keep the organization running.

Programs include child abuse and mental health treatment, a youth crisis hotline and runaway homeless youth emergency shelter, domestic violence shelters and legal services, anger-management and parenting classes, a family violence response team; intervention for gang-involved youth and community reintegration for former prisoners. The social safety net is both wide and deep.

“We’re addressing issues across the age span,” Sternad said.

Many of Interface’s services are offered 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Interface Family Violence Response Team, for example, working with law enforcement, offers crisis intervention and assessment, safety planning and referrals. Interface also operates a 24-hour domestic violence and human trafficking hotline. 

The agency’s 2-1-1 information and referral service is an around-the-clock lifeline as well. The 2-1-1 Ventura County program provides information about and referrals to health and human services in the county, as well as timely assistance during disasters, such as where to find emergency shelter. People can either call 2-1-1 via phone or text their ZIP code to 898211, to contact a live person, or visit to search a database of resources.

Launched in 2005, 2-1-1 Ventura County was the first 2-1-1 program in California. It’s free, confidential and available in multiple languages. 

“Our prevention services really start with 2-1-1,” Sternad said. “We’re giving information to people at the exact time they need it. The social service system is very fragmented and complex; 2-1-1 consolidates all the information.”

Sternad said he calls two-way texting “social services 3.0.” National and local data, he said, show that people prefer texting over calling when they seek help for social services. “There’s less stigma when you don’t have to make the words come out and hear someone’s reaction,” he said. 

“It also helps people who maybe want more privacy because they’re in school or at work,” added Kelly Brown, director of 2-1-1 Ventura County.

The most common 2-1-1 calls, she said, are related to housing and shelter, which she referred to as “the No. 1 unmet need in the county.” 

“We expected young people to be the top text users,” Sternad said, “but the first to use it were homeless people and veterans.”

Interface’s 2-1-1 Ventura County has also been active on a national and state level during recent disasters and crises, fielding overflow 2-1-1 calls for assistance during Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, the shooting in Las Vegas and wildfires in Northern California.

Another valued service is the Teen Dating Violence Program, which reaches 2,500 teens per year in ninth-grade health classes at local high schools. Sternad said the program is important because Ventura County has the highest rate of reported domestic violence in the state for counties with more than 60,000 people.

“We don’t really know the reasons why,” Sternad said, “but there should be real urgency in getting to teens to stem the tide of domestic violence. Eight percent of ninth-graders tell us they’ve had an abusive interpersonal relationship themselves. Those percentages quadruple by the end of high school, so this is the right time to get these messages to youth.” 

He described one 14-year-old student who participated in the program and broke up with her boyfriend when she realized that his actions included the danger signs of an abuser, such as reading her texts and blaming her for everything.”

A younger audience is reached by another intervention program called My Body Belongs to Me. Aimed at preschool and school-aged children, it is designed to teach children how to protect themselves from sexual abuse, including how to say no and how to tell an adult. According to Sternad, 4,500 participated in My Body Belongs to Me last year. 

 “15 kids came forward to disclose sexual abuse that was happening at that time,” he said. “We made reports, and stopped abuse right away.”

Cynthia Martinez, who runs an in-home daycare business called Sunshine for Tots in Oxnard, has asked Interface several times to present the My Body Belongs to Me program to her preschoolers and their parents. A passionate advocate for the program, Martinez said that she was abused sexually at age 8 and didn’t speak up or know what to do at the time. 

“I think it’s super-important to empower little ones, to let them know how to use their voices,” she said.

Interface employees are filled with success stories of people the organization has helped. Sternad said he can’t stop thinking about Interface’s work with runaway homeless teens, and one young person in particular.

“We had a young girl who identified as a boy at age 14,” he said. “When she disclosed her gender identity, the family had a really hard time. After a lot of mediation, family therapy, tears, yelling and tough work,” he said, the young man returned home.

“Sometimes we just get stuck and need someone to help us get unstuck,” Sternad said. “That family’s situation speaks volumes to me, that the right intervention at the right time can literally turn the life of a family around.” 

And in turn, helping just one person, or one family, can help everyone in a community. 

Interface Children and Family Services
4001 Mission Oaks Blvd., Suite 1

TOOLS FOR TOTS: Cynthia Martinez with three-year-old Matias, is owner of Sunshine for Tots daycare in Oxnard and has hosted Interface’s My Body Belongs to Me program, which teaches children how to protect themselves from sexual abuse. “I think it’s super-important to empower little ones, to let them know how to use their voices,” she says.


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