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Live to Serve

news2Christine Johnson-Lyons retires from the Community Action Board

After devoting nearly 30 years of her time and energy to fighting for the rights of the poor and disadvantaged of Santa Cruz County, one may expect Christine Johnson-Lyons to have no regrets. But, to the contrary, there is something she wishes she could have done during her time as executive director of the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County (CAB): helped more people in need.

“There’s so much to do, that it’s a matter of prioritizing and deciding where you’re going to put your emphasis and how far to spread yourself out, as well as the agency,” says Johnson-Lyons. “I realized there was a limit to what we could do, so although it was disappointing, I still had to be pragmatic.”

Each year, The Community Assessment Project (CAP) chooses a group of outstanding individuals in Santa Cruz County who have helped to further the CAP’s community improvement goals, which were established in 2010, with hopes of being realized by 2015. In addition to the individual awards presented for each of the CAP’s six categories, such as creating 1,000 more jobs in Santa Cruz County in the category of economics, they also honor one person with a Lifetime Achievement Award. The 2013 recipient was Johnson-Lyons, who retired from her post as executive director of CAB after 27 years on Nov. 22.

Driven to community action as a teenager, after attending a speech given by then-president Lyndon Baines-Johnson in Sacramento about the elimination of poverty, Johnson-Lyons went on to graduate from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in community studies.

“I wanted to do work that would create change in our society,” she says. “I wanted to improve the lives of people, particularly disadvantaged people who have less resources, or those who are potential victims of prejudice and discrimination.”

After working in a series of educational and social service positions around the San Francisco and Monterey Bay areas, Johnson-Lyons found a sense of community in the Pajaro Valley. Realizing that she wanted to live and work in Watsonville, Johnson-Lyons served as the children’s commissioner for Santa Cruz County’s 4th District before she became CAB’s executive director in 1986.

“It was a rocky time before I came,” says Johnson-Lyons. “There had been a series of directors who had come and gone. When I started, the budget was $300,000, and now it’s over $3 million. There were only two programs and now there are eight programs.”

news2-2Christine Johnson-Lyons still plans on advocating for the community.CAB was founded in 1965 after the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. During its initial years, the Santa Cruz County Community Action Program, as it was then called, served as an incubator for a variety of initiatives and social service programs that helped to reduce poverty in the county, but lost a majority of its funding during the Vietnam War. In 1977, the program lost its status as a county organization. Once it officially became a nonprofit, its title was changed to the Community Action Board of Santa Cruz County, Inc. 

Today, with the help of Johnson-Lyons and many others, CAB’s eight programs work to aid recent immigrants, the economically challenged and disadvantaged, as well as adults and youth returning to the community from incarceration.

One of CAB’s programs, the Community Restoration Project, which provides free job training and mentoring to low-income youth and adults, recently completed a clean-up project at Aldridge Lane Park in Corralitos. Under the guidance of the Santa Cruz County Department of Public Works, Parks, Open Spaces, and Cultural Services Division, an adult crew in CAB’s “Work First” program spent two months power-washing, weeding, and fixing up equipment in the park. On Nov. 22, Johnson-Lyons’ last day as executive director, they held a celebration at Aldridge Lane Park to commemorate the makeover, which she attended.

Although Johnson-Lyons has resigned from her role at CAB, she still plans on advocating for community action and serving Santa Cruz County in one form or another. She intends on becoming more active in the Watsonville Wetlands Watch, an environmental group that she helped found, and also hopes to aid in the organization of the national celebration of the 50-year anniversary of the Economic Opportunity Act, which will occur in the State Capitol in May of 2014.

“There are also a lot of things I want to get reconnected to that are important in my life that have been put on the back burner,” says Johnson-Lyons, “like yoga and my garden.”

Taking the reigns as the new executive director of CAB is MariaElena De La Garza, the former deputy director for business development for Janus of Santa Cruz.

“I would like to thank Chris for her 27 years of service and many contributions to our community,” says De La Garza. “Her vision, leadership, and passion have made the difference in the lives of thousands. It is an honor for me to be given the opportunity to continue the work and ensure that the mission of CAB be upheld and celebrated.” 

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