ICYMI: ‘Breaking Barriers’: How a new Merced County program helps people turn their lives around
BY CHIARA ELENA ROMERO

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From Merced Sun-Star

There’s a new effort on the west side of Merced County geared toward helping those who want to get their life back on track.

It’s called Breaking Barriers, a Merced County Probation pilot program that offers employment, mental health and life services to probation clients and their family members in Los Banos.

“We’re really important because we know that providing services to our probation clients is really going to help them succeed,” Breaking Barriers Program Manager Shoua Her said. “Another barrier, too, is a lot of our clients don’t have money, so by giving them everything they need, hopefully that provides success.”

And Friday showcased the first open house and grand opening for the Breaking Barriers building at 445 I St. in Los Banos, next to the Merced County Criminal Justice Center.

The building’s features include a computer lab that allows probation clients to work on resumes and rooms to practice for job interviews.

In addition, Breaking Barriers employees can help clients to get a driver’s license and apply for a Social Security card.

As Tristin Gresham, the probation program specialist for Breaking Barriers, put it, the goal of the program is to not only be a “one-stop shop” but to showcase that probation employees have the client’s best interests at heart in helping them rebuild their lives.

ENDING LAW ENFORCEMENT ‘STIGMA’

“I want to help diminish the stigma that is attached with law enforcement, because let’s be honest, law enforcement doesn’t have a good rep. But here in doing what we’re doing, I think it’s slowly going to diminish that stigma,” Gresham said to attendees on Friday.

“That’s why we’re called Breaking Barriers, we’re here to break those barriers that stop them in their tracks.”

The program partners with the Merced County Office of Education to provide opportunities for clients to obtain a GED and the county’s Behavioral Health Services to provide mental health services. They also team with Merced College to provide different opportunities for trades and further education, the Valley Crisis Center, All Dads Matter, and All Moms Matter to provide more mental health and life support systems.

Breaking Barriers, itself, consists of Department of Workforce Investment (WorkNet), Merced County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services and the county Probation Department employees.

The Breaking Barriers program didn’t kick-start until March of this year. The building itself opened in late December 2020, with some remodeling done this past year. Funds came from state and federal sources, including an estimated $177,000 for the remodeling.

OTHER MERCED COUNTY CITIES MAY BE ADDED

Although Breaking Barriers is only offered in Los Banos, the goal is to eventually bring it to other Merced County cities such as Merced and Gustine.

“This is really being treated (as) more of a pilot project, so we want to see the success of this program before we launch in other cities,” said Kalisa Rochester, chief probation officer for Merced County Probation.

Lloyd Pereira, the District 4 county supervisor who attended Friday’s open house, said it’s uncertain as to when a Breaking Barriers program could launch in other cities.

“A lot of times, pilot projects could cost a lot of money and may or may not work,” he said. “But if it works, which I have no doubt that it will, because the right teams are here, we could decide to do this project in Merced or Atwater or somewhere else.”

For now, Breaking Barriers continues with its success in Los Banos, Rochester said.

Currently, it serves about 65 clients, with an estimated 25 seeking mental health services from the county’s Behavioral Health Services and 30 to 40 engaging in services from WorkNet.

“That’s pretty significant for a program that hasn’t been around for that very long,” Rochester said.

Another benefit of the program, she said, is allowing BHRS employees and probation officers to “see the clients in their own homes to identify any issues that they may be having or identify gaps where in client is in need of services or a family member is in need of services.”

‘KNOW THEIR SELF-WORTH’

Once a client expresses interest, Gresham hopes they’ll commit to the program, and not make “excuses that keep them from moving forward and transitioning out of the life that they’ve been in.”

“That’s what we’re here to do, we’re here to give them these different opportunities that they wouldn’t necessarily have,” Gresham said.

The program’s partnerships, Gresham said, allow them to “not have those excuses anymore.”

“We’re here to break those barriers, those excuses, down, because they need that person that’s going to give them that positive push into a better lifestyle.”

Read more at Merced Sun-Star