When Sarah Lake St. Germain, a single mother of three, has a crisis at home, she doesn’t call a friend, a relative or even a counselor. She calls Delene Rodenberg.
“She’s my go-to girl,” St. Germain said recently while sitting in a chair at the salon she owns in Vashon Village. “She’s just got my back. She gives me the strength to do what I’m doing.”
Rodenberg coordinates Vashon’s Wraparound Services, a relatively new program that has so far earned praise from parents who call it a lifeline and even special attention from the county agency that funds it.
In Wraparound, families whose children have special needs — such as a disability, a behavioral issue or troubles in school — have easy access to a suite of services provided by various island organizations, many of them free to low-income parents.
Rodenberg, a calm and easygoing woman who is employed by the county but works out of the Vashon Youth & Family Service PlaySpace, develops relationships with the children as well as their families, parents who often feel overwhelmed by their circumstances. For up to two years, she does the work that would normally fall on parents, lining up tutoring and counseling, for instance. She also provides parent coaching and helps to secure financial assistance.
“It’s so difficult raising children, and some of these families, through no fault of their own, are raising children in isolation,” Rodenberg said recently, sitting in her large office, which is painted in warm hues and outfitted with comfortable furniture. “It’s about breaking down that isolation.”
Parents who are served by Wraparound, however, say Rodenberg is much more than a county worker who connects them with services. Rodenberg, who serves about 16 families at a time, fills in wherever families need support most.
If mornings are hard, Rodenberg might drive a child to school. If a family can’t afford new shoes, she finds them money to purchase a pair. If a mom just needs someone to talk to, she’s there.
Most importantly, Rodenberg says, she tries to take time to nurture each child, focusing on the child’s strengths, not his or her problems, and reporting those successes to the child’s family. If a child shows interest in art, she puts them in a class at the Blue Heron. Recently she spent the day in the greenhouse with a teenager who wanted to try her hand at gardening.
“It’s about finding what their passions are and filling that cup,” Rodenberg said.
She’s done just that for St. Germain’s son — one of three adopted out of the foster-care system. St. Germain explained how her son has physical and emotional issues but has always loved and excelled at sports. Rodenberg has done everything she can to keep him on sports teams, and, thanks to Rodenberg, he and his brothers have twice gone to YMCA summer camps on full scholarships. Sometimes, Rodenberg shoots hoops with him.
“She’s doing therapy, but he doesn’t know it. … He’s playing,” St. Germain said. “He looks forward to spending time with her.”
Rodenberg, who has lived on Vashon with her family for 17 years, has had a long career in social services — a far departure from her bachelor’s degree in poetry and theology. She’s worked with the homeless, at a residential home for children, at an employment programs for teens and at a YMCA women’s shelter. She was hired to begin providing Wraparound services on Vashon almost three years ago.
“I think we all search for meaning, and my meaning comes from connecting with people,” she said.
Heather Flanery, a mother of three young children, said Rodenberg’s help has transformed her family’s life. Most recently, she helped get one of her children screened for a speech delay and then set him up with speech therapy.
“You can make 20 phone calls in one day, but with her I just call her and she gets back to me,” Flanery said. “She’s the best friend ever, and she has the resources, too.”
Recently Flanery, who has struggled financially as a single mom, found a full-time job at a social services agency in West Seattle. She credits her success to Rodenberg, who helped her practice for the interview and drove her there.
“How do you put into words the person who fills in all those places?” Flanery said. “She’s been such a great person to my family.”
All of the families involved in Wraparound, a two-year program for each child, have grown in some way, Rodenberg said, even if it’s simply feeling less overwhelmed by their challenges. In fact, King County Wraparound Services has been so impressed with Vashon’s program that it would like to take a close look at Rodenberg’s work in hopes of improving Wraparound delivery in other parts of the county.
“They have shown interest in learning more about the way the model is delivered on Vashon because we’re having success that has inspired them to pay attention,” Rodenberg said.
At the same time, she’s quick to credit those on Vashon who make her work possible, such as counselors, teachers and several VYFS staff members.
“It’s not Delene Wraparound services, it’s the whole community,” she said. “We’re an island that’s invested in the health of our community, more so than communities that don’t have that natural boundary around them.”
For many, however, Rodenberg’s help in pulling it all together has made all the difference.
“You can be a super mom and still need help,” St. Germain said. “It takes a village to raise a kid. Our village is a special place, and she is the epitome of that term.”