When someone calls the VCAAA looking for help, their first point of contact is the Information & Assistance team. For nearly a year, Celeste Lopez has been one of the helpful social workers taking those calls and working on connecting our clients with the services they need. Here is her story:
Q: Give me a little bit of your background.
A: I was born and raised in Ventura. I graduated from Foothill Technology High School. I attended Ventura College right after that. Once I graduated from VC, I transferred over to California State University Dominguez Hills, where I received my bachelor’s degree in sociology.
Q: Why did you choose sociology as your major?
A: At the time, I was a police explorer and the chief of police of that agency advised me that if I wanted to be a good police officer in the community, it would be a good idea to consider changing my major from criminal justice, which would teach skills that I would already learn in the field, to sociology, which would help me understand people and their behavior in communities. Once I started taking more classes in sociology, I became more interested in the topic and realized that I wanted to help people however I could in whatever field I could.
Q: After college, what did you do?
A: Before completing my degree, I had to come home and care for my mother as she became very ill. I didn’t work for a few months after I graduated, but then I took a job with a catering company. I was able to care for my mother and work on the weekends. As my mother started to get better, I started a job with Clinicas del Camino Real, and was there for a few years. I started off as a temporary administrative assistant. After that, I got a permanent position as the administrative assistant to the medical management director. I then got promoted to being the compliance officer’s administrative assistant. But after some time, I was ready for a change. I applied for a position with the VCAAA and a position with the Ventura County Medical Center. I was hired at VCMC and was there for four months. I then got the offer to work at the VCAAA and have been here for nine months.
Q: How did you decide at that point in your life that this is what you wanted to do, helping older adults and people with disabilities?
A: I didn’t realize that I was interested in helping older adults and people with disabilities until I was here. Once I started to see some of the struggles that people have just to fulfill their basic needs, I knew it was something I wanted to be involved with.
Growing up I thought that my parents were always going to be strong and healthy but seeing them age has been hard. Becoming educated on what older adults and people with disabilities need and what they struggle with will not only help me provide assistance to Ventura County communities, but also my parents during their aging process, and that is why I do what I do.
Q: For someone that doesn’t know what you do, explain what your role is with the Information & Assistance team.
A: In my role, I provide the initial intake of clients by screening a client’s needs and determining their best options for programs within our agency or referring them to resources in the community at large. I interact with a large influx of clients, families, and their friends. I provide guidance to help individuals as they navigate through difficult situations. Additionally, I help establish trust with clients so that they feel comfortable and safe, help clients obtain tangible services county-wide, and equip clients with the tools to help themselves.
Q: What is the most popular thing that these clients are calling about?
A: Most of the VCAAA calls that we receive would be for transportation services, whether it’s for free bus cards/passes or medi-ride requests.
Q: How many clients are you working with at any given time?
A: That’s really tough to answer. Every day we assist a different number of clients. Just in the month of June we’ve had more than 1,000 calls.
Q: It must be gratifying to take a call from someone in need, and then be able to help them.
A: Yes, it is. Especially when they call about one thing and after further conversation, we’re able to provide other services for needs that they weren’t initially calling about.
Q: What do you like most about what you do?
A: Working with clients, understanding them, and being able to make a difference in their lives, whether it’s big or small. A lot of clients call with urgent needs and don’t really know what to do, and just lending an ear means so much to them.
I also love working with my team. We all have one goal and that is to provide our clients with the best service and assistance possible.
Q: You have to be an expert in a lot of different things, because we have a lot of programs here at the VCAAA. How easy or hard was it to learn everything you needed so that you could take these calls from clients and know how to connect them to the right services?
A: It was hard the first few months because I came on not really knowing anything about the VCAAA or what it offered, but now I’m more comfortable assisting clients and providing the requested help. As a social worker in the Information and Assistance Department, you do need to be educated on different services and programs not only at VCAAA but county-wide and because of that I do my best to stay organized, especially because information and services are constantly changing.
Q: What are the skills that someone needs to have to be successful in a position like yours?
A: To be successful in the Information and Assistance department, you need to be an active listener and allow clients to tell you what they need. You need to have good communication skills and be able to relay the information that is available. Being patient and empathetic is key, because clients are going through a lot, they’ll call, they don’t know what to do, and they’re looking for someone to give them some guidance. It is also very important for any social worker to have cultural competency and professional boundaries.
Q: What are your future goals?
A: I am very blessed and truly enjoy working for the VCAAA, I would love to grow and experience different positions within the agency. One day, I’d like to attain a management position.
Q: Who is someone that inspired you or helped you get to where you are today?
A: My family, they are my reason. They have always motivated me to be the best version of myself and to always give it my all.
Q: Did I hear that your parents are part of the first Bingocize class here?
A: Yes! They attend the VCAAA Bingocize class on Mondays and Wednesdays. My dad recently retired so we wanted to make sure he remained active in some way and didn’t go from working eight hours a day for 40 years to doing nothing for health reasons. It’s nice because I’ll walk by the hallway and see them exercising, socializing, and really enjoying themselves. My parents are Spanish speaking only but have not allowed that to stop them from participating. Also, the staff is great and makes them feel very comfortable.
Q: What do you like to do away from work?
A: I really enjoy spending time with my family and friends. I enjoy hiking, dancing, and eating tacos.
To speak with a member of the Information & Assistance team, please call the VCAAA at (805) 477-7300.