ATASCADERO – North County’s one and only homeless shelter has just recruited the former Chief Operations Officer of the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County to take the lead as Executive Director. Wendy Lewis has more 10 years with the Food Bank, the last seven years as the C.O.O., specializing in fund development and excelling as an advocate and spokesperson.
While at the Food Bank, Lewis established the Food Bank Nutrition Education Program, Healthy Food for Local Families programs and children’s programs, including school district snack and summer meals programs and Children’s Farmer’s Markets. Her specific skill set in making big things come to fruition appealed to El Camino Homeless Organization as someone who might be able to lead them forward into the future.
“With my time at the Food Bank, I kind of moved throughout most all positions until my last position as Chief Operations Officer and was the lead in determining that we needed to consolidate into one and then, also, how that plan would unfold, so from procurement of land to working with in construction partners, navigating county process — some actual federal process we had to go through — that was my baby,” Lewis said, adding that professionally she strives to make an impact. “If there’s a gap, finding a way to fill it. If there’s a need that the employees have, how we can meet that need as well.”
She also wants to bring as many resources as possible to those who need them at ECHO.
“For the shelter, we want it to be the best place to provide comfort and safety to those who need it the most,” she said.
Lewis is a native of Lompoc who came to the area to go to school at Cal Poly. She met her husband of 26 years in San Luis Obispo, and the couple has two grown sons. She and her family have lived in Atascadero for 24 years. In fact, her home is not too far from the ECHO shelter, a building that sits just down the street from Atascadero High School.
Though Lewis has worn many hats over the years, as owner and senior sales manager of the Pampered Chef in Atascadero in the late 90s, to Recreational Programs Coordinator for the City of Atascadero in the early 2000s, as well as Community Outreach Manager and Community Relations Director of Food Bank Coalition of SLO, Lewis is also known as “Coach Wendy.”
She is a die-hard Dodgers fan, and coached her son’s teams through Atascadero Babe Ruth and Atascadero Little League. Being the go-getter she is, she also volunteered on the Board as president and board members for those organizations.
“I’m a baseball fanatic,” Lewis said. She used to be a softball player back in the day and said she has a little bit of a competitive streak in her. Her house is the one that all the young people go to after games to hang out and she holds season tickets to Cal Poly baseball games. “That sense of family is what makes me tick outside of work,” she said.
Lewis is lover of the outdoors and a “obsessive” collector of about 300 succulents. Her favorite place to go hiking would be Pinnacles National Park. Her sons are professional bass fishermen, and she and her husband have taught them the love of the outdoors through camping and fishing trips.
Lewis has been at the new job one month now, and she has gotten an interesting take on the challenges ahead. Coming from the Food Bank, she already knows those in need consist of a mix of the unemployed, the mentally ill, the drug or alcohol dependent and the working poor. Many of the homeless families, she said, have gone through several medical challenges that contributed to a loss of housing. This is something she’d like the community to know. Many of today’s homeless are regular families with children, who hit a crisis and didn’t have the immediate resources to stay afloat. ECHO serves as a temporary shelter, with case management and partnering outreach services like employment coaching to get those who need it back on their feet.
She said she’s thankful ECHO started as a grassroots, all volunteer-run organization. And she said she’s excited to help the organizational structure grow.
“It’s at this point where growth needs to happen because in North County there are more needs that we can be meeting,” she said.
Lewis has many ideas for ECHO. With the proper funding she would like to hire more staff.
“Our staff is amazing but they’re wearing ten hats,” she said. “We’d like to share those hats and have a stronger structure. We operate under a use permit from the City, so the game plan is to make sure that we continue to do so and improve where needed and communicate out what we’re doing. It’s an open door for people to ask questions and find out more about what we do.”
Another strong piece of Lewis’ background is leadership training. An atmosphere of coaching and open communication is a style she strives for in supporting her staff.
“We decide things together,” she said. “I think that’s going to strengthen our organization as well.”
On a tour of the shelter facility, Lewis pointed out some wonderful new additions including a brand new laundry room. Families can keep their property inside their rooms during their stay and she encourages the idea for both staff and residents, to treat the shelter like a home while they are there.
For Lewis, it’s important for those who stay at ECHO maintain their dignity.
“We need to break down some of the misconceptions on who we help,” she said. “I think that’s something we can improve on. I’ve been amazed at some of the people who need housing and what they’re actually doing to get on that path. There’s an element of mental illness in some people we see and that’s something our county really needs to look at. We could have a lot more mental health services in our county to meet the need.”
Another new addition are some beautiful garden beds next to the playground, basketball courts and common eating area outside. The shelter offers a nightly meal to anyone who needs it, homeless or not. Lewis said ECHO partners with about 60 organizations — churches, clubs, and nonprofits, that cook the nightly meal. Those who stay at ECHO help keep the place clean and well-kept. It’s a team effort that Lewis does not take for granted.
Lewis said the shelter is in need of a few things, saying it’s the caring community that have kept ECHO running.
“It’s the local person who’s sending in that donation that keeps ECHO going, which is amazing to see,” she said.
Lewis is hoping to get the word out on what they are doing and who they help to broaden the list of donors.
“We’re always needing volunteers,” she said. “There are so many different volunteer opportunities. There are options with the meal plan, the campus monitor, chaperones…”
ECHO also needs a van for transporting its residents to appointments.
Lewis said there is also a need for a local place where community members can stay on a transitional basis during a detox from alcohol or drugs. Prado Homeless Center in San Luis Obispo will be the first residential detoxification center of its kind in the county. Construction has begun, but the center won’t be open for another two years.
The community, staff and volunteers have already given so much, she said. In 2017 ECHO provided 19,714 meals,14,295 warm beds and almost 1,000 showers. Their volunteers donated 23,595 hours of service. Every night a free meal is offered to those staying at ECHO and every night, ECHO is at or near full capacity.
“We want it to feel safe, and to feel like a home and a community,” Lewis said, adding that she’s so grateful she made the decision to come to ECHO. She said helping people of this community makes her heart feel good. She said, “I’m honored and humbled to be in this position.”