If you’ve ever worked with Kathy Simas, you know that she loves her community more than just about anything, and that she works tirelessly to make it a better place.
And if you know Kathy well, you also know that she will do her absolute best to deflect all the credit for her incredible achievements. Much to her chagrin, this article is devoted entirely to Kathy as we recognize her 20 years of service to the Santa Barbara Foundation (SBF) while highlighting some of the most impactful community projects she has led over the past two decades.
In 2000, Kathy left the private sector to join the Foundation as its North County Affiliate Coordinator. SBF had established its first formal affiliate in Lompoc in 1995, and a year later established another affiliate group in Santa Maria. Although named “affiliates,” the two groups functioned as local advisory committees, and Kathy was brought on to help coordinate their community efforts.
“In the late 1990s, the affiliate model was this new philanthropic phenomenon being embraced by the community foundation world,” Kathy explained. “Affiliates represented SBF in their communities – it was a volunteer committee of individuals from each geographic area that helped the Foundation with grantmaking and community relations in their respective communities.”
While working with the affiliates, Kathy oversaw the development of programs that received widespread recognition. The Celebration of Life Luncheon, a partnership between the Santa Maria Affiliate and the Santa Maria Recreation and Parks Department, received a State Assembly Certificate of Recognition as Senior Citizen Program of the Year. Sixteen years after the inaugural event, the City of Santa Maria continues to celebrate the lives of 90+ year old residents at an annual luncheon.
In 2005, Kathy and the Lompoc Affiliate teamed up with the Lompoc Recreation Department and the Lompoc Record, embarking on a heartwarming effort to interview 90 World War II veterans and share their stories with the community.
These stories ran on the front page of the Lompoc Record every Sunday and Thursday for almost a year, and the project culminated with the creation of a book featuring all the veteran testimonials, entitled “Voices of World War II: A Lompoc Veterans History Project.”
“At the culmination of the project, we hosted a dinner for all of them at the Lompoc Elks and everyone received a copy of the book,” Kathy remembers. “Nearly every veteran included in the book was there, as well as everyone who contributed to the project. It was a true community effort, and such an amazing moment – it still brings me to tears.”
Kathy served as affiliate coordinator for 11 years, and to this day she treasures the relationships and programs created during that period. “I got to know the affiliate members really well, and they took great pride in their work. They really paved the way for the other things that we’ve done in North County, and they brought a lot of people into community philanthropy who had not been involved before.”
The affiliates program came to a close in 2013, and Kathy transitioned to the North County Director position. This new role, which involved more grantmaking, positioned Kathy as a countywide leader impacting many of the Foundation’s programs and initiatives.
As North County Director, Kathy went on to serve as SBF’s representative on the County of Santa Barbara’s Workforce Investment Board, which oversees various programs that train and provide job placement services for unemployed and underemployed individuals. Additionally, she served on the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce Board and on the Santa Maria Valley Industry Education Council (a role she held for over 25 years), where she helped connect schools with businesses to find creative ways to meet local educational needs.
Kathy also continued her work with veterans. She spent many months scanning the veteran landscape in Santa Barbara County before recommending grant awards to Allan Hancock College, Santa Barbara City College, and UC Santa Barbara to help these institutions build out or enhance their veteran resource centers. Her research also led the Foundation to commission the 2017 Santa Barbara County Veterans Needs Assessment.
Before retiring in December 2020, Kathy played a critical role in the formation of the Santa Barbara County Veterans Collaborative. The countywide collaborative is currently in the process of establishing itself as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and aims to officially launch in 2021 as a forum for agencies to come together monthly to share knowledge, identify gaps in service, and coordinate efforts to better serve local veterans.
“Veterans’ needs cross all sectors in the community: housing, employment, education, food insecurity,” said Kathy. “The Foundation touches veterans in many different ways through our programs, but when veterans come back to the community, some of them have service-related challenges or other needs that require specialized attention, and that is why it is so important to have integrated programs that specifically serve veterans.”
Kathy took the lead on many other important projects, including the creation of the North County Nonprofit Forum, an annual conference focusing on the specific issues facing North County nonprofits, and the Celebrate Philanthropy Awards, which each year honors individuals, couples, or families who have demonstrated outstanding civic and charitable work in the Santa Maria Valley. Honorees are profiled in the Santa Maria Times, which also sponsors the annual Celebrate Philanthropy Luncheon. Kathy was also involved in the Hands Across Santa Maria project, a Volunteer Recruitment Fair providing nonprofit organizations with a platform to advertise their services and promote volunteerism in North County.
In her 20 years with the Foundation, Kathy has seen the organization change considerably with the times, and she believes SBF is now much more connected and accessible to all local communities.
“Over the long-term, we have become much more ‘of the community,’” Kathy shared. “Our role has evolved, and it is more of a partnership relationship now – we are out in the community trying to identify the gaps, building the capacity of nonprofits, engaging with leaders across all sectors. And while we’ve always done great work, I’m very encouraged by our evolution, particularly regarding working with an equity lens throughout all communities.” And while Kathy might not admit it, her fingerprints are all over this shift towards inclusivity and authentic community engagement.
Reflecting on her time with SBF, Kathy is overwhelmed with love and gratitude for her friends, colleagues, and fellow community members. “What I’m most grateful for are the relationships that I have built over the years. I have had the opportunity to work with incredible, dedicated, passionate people, and I will carry those relationships with me for the rest of my life.”
When asked if she had any final thoughts about her career (in a last-ditch attempt to cajole her into acknowledging her outstanding impact), she responded in true Kathy Simas form.
“I hate this stuff,” she said. “I really do, so please make it not about me – make it about the community.”