Access California Services took a serious and sobering look at leaving Anaheim, its longtime home, right before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
In late 2019, the heralded nonprofit found a building in neighboring Buena Park to possibly host its award-winning array of health and human services for immigrants, refugees and anyone in need.
With a proposal to build a family resource center at Brookhurst Park foiled before Anaheim City Council on more than one occasion, it appeared that Nahla Kayali, AccessCal’s founding executive director, had no other option.
But the pandemic forced AccessCal to stay put at its current office space nestled in the Little Arabia district on the city’s west side for a while longer. Then, an opportunity to remain in Anaheim arose.
In the summer of 2020, UCI Health decided to move a family health center from the city-owned facility it occupied for more than 40 years.
By the following May, Anaheim’s Community Services Department issued a request for proposals, or RFP, with an emphasis on bidders having a “community benefit” clearly defined in the programs and services they seek to offer to local residents as part of the submission process.
Of the two applications Anaheim received, a review panel selected AccessCal. A lease agreement for the vacant building behind La Palma Park went before City Council this week.
“This journey began back in 2004, with the city of Anaheim, as we hoped to collaborate with the city to build a partnership to serve all Anaheim residents and serving the underserved community,” Kayali said during the council meeting. “Now, 18 years later, I am honored and grateful to stand here today and see this vision come to life.”
AccessCal humbly began its mission to “serve the underserved” in 1998 with Kayali, a folding table, a landline and folder carrying a dozen of her case files. The nonprofit has since grown to serve 11,000 community members with 40 staffers proficient in 19 languages.
Over the years, AccessCal has offered more than a hundred health and human services including case management, mental health counseling, citizenship and emergency financial relief programs. It’s the only agency contracted by the Orange County Social Services Agency to provide support for refugees.
AccessCal also most recently added veteran’s services to its expansive portfolio.
The nonprofit kept its doors open to the community throughout the pandemic for those in need of critical assistance while transferring other programming online. AccessCal partnered with the United Way of Orange County and secured CARES Act funding to facilitate rent and mortgage relief payments.
“This partnership is about community benefits,” Kayali said to council members. “Through this opportunity, AccessCal will be able to enrich and expand our services and provide a safer space for clients to benefit from wrap-around health and human services.”
In 2016 and 2018, AccessCal’s proposal for a family resource center at Brookhurst Park next to working-class apartment neighborhoods drew criticism.
West Anaheim Neighborhood Development Council, under the leadership of the late Esther Wallace, opposed the plan as one that would take green space away from the park if AccessCal was allowed to build a new facility over a patch of pine trees.
The community group also deemed the proposed $1 annual lease agreement drawn up by city staff to be a “giveaway,” though Anaheim has routinely executed similar leases with other nonprofits elsewhere, even on park land. Critics also pointed to the lack of an RFP process.
On the eve of local elections in 2016, the proposal was pulled from the agenda at the last minute. Two years later, a council majority voted to discontinue consideration of a lease agreement that would bring AccessCal’s vision of a family resource center at Brookhurst Park to reality.
The city didn’t have any buildings it owned to offer as substitute sites at the time.
This time around, Anaheim offered a $1-per-year lease agreement for 10 years, with two five-year renewal options, for its vacated building. Council members eagerly displayed their support for the partnership.
“As soon I was elected, I decided to get to know this organization very well,” said Jose Diaz, a District 1 councilman from the city’s west side. “This would [turn] a blighted building [into] a state-of-the-art building right in the middle of Anaheim. We’re going to serve the whole community.”
Once approved, AccessCal’s new home would fall within Councilman Jose F. Moreno’s central District 3. He pushed back against any “giveaway” notions surrounding the lease agreement.
“We often don’t have the general funds to provide services to residents who may need it the most,” Moreno said. “What we do have is land. We have properties. We have facilities.”
Moreno seconded Diaz’s motion to approve the lease agreement; the rest of the council voted unanimously in favor of it.
A series of tenant improvements to the building paid for through an agreement between the city and the nonprofit are expected within the next nine to 12 months placing a potential grand opening in time for AccessCal’s 25th anniversary.
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Gabriel San Román is a feature writer for TimesOC. He previously worked at OC Weekly – as a reporter, podcast producer and columnist – until the newspaper’s closing in late 2019. San Román also loves the game of basketball. He may or may not be the tallest Mexican in O.C.
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