The tree of Life

Debra Manners shares Sycamores’ missionBy Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

Debra Manners calls her time with Sycamores her “life’s work.”

For 35 years, Manners has had executive roles with the mental health and welfare agency that has 10 locations throughout Southern California.

“I think I’m just motivated because there’s a lot to do,” says Manners, the president and chief executive officer. “As you know, in particular these last two years, we’ve seen the impact of COVID on families and children and people’s mental health. What inspires me are the success stories and the people we work with and the staff.”

For nearly 120 years, Sycamores has offered programs and services through a network of locations stretching across Los Angeles and the San Fernando, San Gabriel and Antelope valleys for children, youth, young adults and families facing serious life challenges.

The behavioral health services impact more than 16,000 lives annually. Services include residential treatment, transitional shelter care, foster care and adoption, transitional living assistance for young adults currently or at risk of experiencing homelessness, outpatient and school-based mental health services, wraparound/in-home services, psychiatric services, psychological testing and educational support services. 

Manners has worked for Sycamores for nearly 35 years in increasingly responsible roles. With 800 employees, the organization recently dropped Hathaway from its name because it “didn’t sound like a nonprofit.

“People would say it sounded like we’re a law firm. We did a survey of staff, considers and other partners and asked, ‘Hathaway or Sycamores?’ A little over 52% said Sycamores. It works with our mission because the tree (logo) is the tree of life and it’s more calming.”

The name remained with the Hathaway Center for Excellence, which was established in 2007 when Sycamores created a separate department to conduct research and evaluate the effectiveness of the agency’s programs. 

The department has since expanded to include clinical training. It provides enhanced learning in behavioral health care to the staff and peer professionals. Hathaway Center for Excellence’s methods, products and resources are centered on evidence-based practices and implementation science principles.The Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recently awarded a $1.9 million grant to the center.

Early start

Manners spent her formative years in Washington State and studied art in college. She says she believed she couldn’t support herself as an artist, so she taught art at a women’s prison. 

“Their stories were incredible,” she says. “I felt just awful for these women because of the wrong choices they had made. At the same time, I was working at a children’s shelter. These were the children who were removed due to abuse and neglect, those kids who had parents in prison.”

She says she thought to herself, “This has got to change. This isn’t OK.” Quickly, she pivoted and studied social work as an undergraduate and a master’s student. 

“We see what’s going on in the world because of technology,” she says. “There’s a struggle to help people. Clearly, we see it now with the homeless population. We run a homeless program for transitional aged youth between 18 and 25. 

“Many of them were in the youth foster care system. The one thing that’s so common is they either don’t have families or the families don’t have the resources to support them. They may have the desire and motivation, but they don’t have the resources. It comes down to these individuals having resources.”

Manners can relate. Early in her career, she had a foster child named Eric, who entered the family’s life at 14. When he was 18, he went into the Army and subsequently attended college. He works as a teacher. (Manners preferred not to reveal Eric’s last name.)

Manners has three daughters, too — Hilary, who works at the Ronald McDonald House; Amanda, an interior designer turned stay-at-home mom; and Andrea, a college student.

A better life

Sycamores’ new tagline is “a better life,” which has a personal meaning, Manners says. 

“It means something different to everyone,” she adds. “At Sycamores, we work really hard to help kids, families, adults and young adults achieve a better life for what that means to them. 

“We want it to involve family and friends. We want successes to be able to be sustainable and take care of themselves. For many, it’s a long journey to get there. One thing about the agency is we do whatever it takes. We stay with you as long as it takes.”

With managed care, patients are limited to 10 to 12 sessions. 

“That’s not who we are,” Manners continues. “We often have those who we work with do really well and say goodbye. Two years later, they call us for a quick tune up and they’re back on their own. We try to make sure that people get what they need.”

Sycamores has an “interesting” model for homeless folks, she says. Sycamores provides what she calls “scattered-site apartments.”

“We lease a two-bedroom apartment in a building,” she begins. “Sometimes it’s a mom and a baby in an apartment, so we lease that apartment for them. We work on mental health issues. They go to school or get a job so they can be sustainable. 

“They can stay with us up until age 25. For most individuals, it takes about two years and then they’re on their own.”

The program works well because clients learn to follow rules, she says. In group homes, residents are disciplined, something that continues on their own.

“Ours is a different model than what you typically see. We started that program many years ago, in 2001. A foundation helped us, and we started this program. It’s certainly grown. Some of the young adults who come out of foster care come back and work for us. They have a lot of credibility because they were in the system themselves.”

Looking back on her 35 years with the organization, Manners has a quick comment. 

“I’m still in my career and, at some point, I’ll retire,” she says. “There’s just a lot to do. There’s a lot going on all the time.”


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