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Helping Children, Families Survive Tough Times Is Mission Of Oakland Man's Non-Profit

OAKLAND (KPIX 5) - Never giving up on any child or family has been the mission of an Oakland man's non-profit organization for the last 36 years.

College senior Celeste Walley will soon earn her chemistry degree. She recalls being a high school truant dealing with trauma from family neglect.

"I was really angry with the world. I upset with my family," she said.

Walley got counseling and therapy in foster care through Seneca Family of Agencies, the Oakland-based nonprofit Ken Berrick founded in 1985.

"They really explained that my future is in my hands," said Walley. "(And) helped me to know there are people that care about me."

Berrick started Seneca to care for folks facing tough times.

"We'll be there in a way that says, 'We don't give up,'" he explained.

Today, the nonprofit serves more than 18,000 young people and families a year in California, Washington and across the US.

Berrick has also helped sponsor legislative reforms from the 1990s that are becoming pillars of the state foster care system.

Children needing intensive treatment can get it in their home or a foster family's home. The so-called "wraparound" services come to you, without moving to an institution.

"It doesn't matter if you're struggling at school, if doesn't matter if you're at home, it doesn't matter if you're struggling with substance abuse, if your family needs help, wraparound brings that help to you where you are, and can stay with you until your life gets better," said Berrick.

Will Lightbourne, director of the state Department of Health Care Services, calls Berrick a humble visionary and "thought leader."

"Instead of thinking, we're going to do therapy for the child, no. What we're going to do is to do therapeutic work with a family," Lightbourne said. "And that's really the legacy Ken is bringing to us."

Under Berrick's leadership, Seneca is working with dozens of schools to provide mental health and other services to thousands of struggling students.

He's also reuniting and offering therapy to hundreds of immigrant families who were separated at the border.

Bringing healing is his reward.

"We get to see the community living to their potential and impact," Berrick said. "I just can't think of anything more fun than that."

So for decades of serving young people and their families in crisis, this week's Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Ken Berrick.

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