Susan Olson, executive director of , retires this week after a career of serivce. She helped found the shelter program more than two decades ago, a nonprofit that now includes 20 houses in the Pajaro Valley.
Olson, 69, took the time during her final days on the job to talk about her work at the shelter and what more the community could do to help its less-fortunate members.
1. What motivated you to get involved in the shelter?
This is my second “tour of duty” since Sr. Marie and I started the shelter in 1983 when there was no shelter open all day every day for homeless women and children. I came back because the Ed had left and I thought this would be a good way to complete my full time work life.
2. What do you feel are the biggest accomplishments you’ve seen and/or been part of during your tenure? (the second time around)
Planning and strengthening skills with the staff and board; helping to build a committed and active board of directors; adding three houses; and adding a “longer term support program” for families with health-related issues or those who are close to being able to purchase housing because they have saved enough money in our program.
3. Can you share on simple thing the community could do to improve housing for the least fortunate?
Giving food is pretty simple. Supporting low income housing ventures is much more complex. I would hope folks would financially support PVSS because it is not just about housing. It is about families having the skills to move beyond poverty. Education, savings, care of the family, care of the house are the stepping stones out of poverty. Every time PVSS adds a house to Watsonville it adds an educational unit that challenges families to move beyond their current condition to a more stable future. PVSS tries to model a “hand up” not just a hand out.
4. What have you really come to appreciate about your home afer all the work with people who are without safe housing?
I once had a short period in which I had to move out of housing and couldn’t find something right away. A friend put me up for two weeks. I understood for a very short time the stress of not having a place to stay. I constantly go back to that time and feel the frustration, fear and anxiety of not having a place to stay. Gratitude is the prevailing feeling. Add to those emotions our families who having a whole family going through the crisis and the need to take up to five years to really stabilize their situations. There is no quick fix when a family finally is homeless. Many things have gone wrong to bring them to this place.
5. If there was one thing you can do to make housing in Watsonville and the Pajaro Valley more accessible, what would it be?
Add a 1-cent tax to every box of fruit and vegetables that leave this community and create a housing fund to support low income families. This is an agricultural community and wages are low. Rents are very high. We are still in denial about the expense of living here and what supports low income families need.
For more on Olson's work, check out this Register-Pajaronian newspaper story or watch the YouTube video of a 2010 interview posted to the left.
Editor's Note: Who are the movers and shakers making a difference in Watsonville? Those who lead by example, change things around and make us better by challenging the status quo and having integrity? This is one installment in our .