Sonoma County Human Services social worker wins Pride Business Leadership award

Grace Villafuerte

IHSS social worker

Sonoma County Human Services Department, Adult & Aging Division

3725 Westwind Blvd., Santa Rosa 95403

Grace Villafuerte, an in-home supportive services social worker in the Adult and Aging Division of the Sonoma County Human Services Department, is a winner of North Bay Business Journal’s inaugural Pride Business Leadership Awards.

Personally, what have you learned about yourself within the past year — with its economic and social challenges — and how will it change the way you live going forward?

This past year magnified the role that I had intentionally created for myself in my community. Shifting into an even more active and conscious role clarified and deepened my commitment to my community, especially the older adults in my personal and public life.

I have dedicated my life to “living in community,” which I define as living interdependently. I am aware at all times that the amazing life and rights I enjoy today, are completely due to the immigrants, the women, the LGBT community, the allies, and so many more people who came before me and fought for equal rights.

As a native Santa Rosan, I am able to stay in daily contact and relationship with many of the people who paved the way for me. During the pandemic, many of them were the most vulnerable and needed the most support.

I emphasized seeking out the voices who were more vulnerable, and worked to meet their needs, in ways that were creative and unprecedented. It was an honor, as well as a gesture of gratitude, to provide tangible and emotional support to those that I could. I understand that the strength of our community is up to me and the rest of us able to do so at any time.

Going forward, I will improve my delivery of services, seek out how to create resources that are needed, and also learn to better balance all aspects of my professional and personal life.

Did it give you a new perspective about your career or the business you are in? What was the biggest shift in that perception?

I realize even more how it is important to help people consistently cultivate strong, healthy support systems. This year emphasized how important my work is especially in times of crisis, and I recognize the need to improve and expand people’s access to communication.

It also highlighted once again how important it is to seek and learn from the wisdom of older adults. I spoke with those who have been HIV+ 20+ years and medical professionals who worked in AIDS Prevention and Services in the 80’s and 90’s.

Because they had been thru a pandemic before, it was enlightening to learn from their experiences. For years, I had heard the stories of my friends talking about how traumatizing living during the AIDS crisis was, but until the Pandemic, I did not truly understand the trauma and grief of daily hearing of “death counts.”

Of all the things you learned about yourself in the past year or so, which one surprises you the most and why?

I provided very involved care and medical assistance for an older family member for a prolonged period of time during the pandemic.

Despite my 13+ years as a social worker working with older adults and caregivers, I did not realize how deeply difficult it can be - emotionally and energetically - for caregivers. I learned how to access deeper reservoirs of patience, holding space, and providing comfort.

I also understood the detriments of not intentionally creating balance and rest for myself.

What stereotype or bias involving the Pride movement which you most like to knock down and why?

The stereotype I would love to dispel about Pride month and Pride activities is that it is mostly about “partying.”

I dislike this myth, because it dismisses and invalidates the activities that highlight other parts of our LGBTQI+ Culture, and negates the activities enjoyed by those who are outside of the “partying” demographic, further making many people in our community invisible.

This year, as vice president of Sonoma County Pride, I intentionally included a wide variety of activities for all ages and abilities.

What was the best decision you made in the past year in your professional life in the past year, and what was the worst? Tell us why.

Best: The best decision I made this past year was to learn how to improve collaborations with other agencies while working at the Evacuation Shelter.

Worst: The worst decision I made was not getting a comfortable, ergonomic office chair at the start of the pandemic. A comfortable chair would have provided me less physical pain, a better attitude, and enabled to be more productive.

What is the achievement are you most proud of when it comes to your professional life and why:

Grace Villafuerte

IHSS social worker

Sonoma County Human Services Department, Adult & Aging Division

3725 Westwind Blvd., Santa Rosa 95403

I am proud of my involvement in the work to create resources that support and enhance the lives of LGBTQI+ Older Adults, that ensures strong communication with LGBTQI+ Older Adults, and provides ways of strengthening our LGBTQI+ Older Adult community - as individuals and as a group.

Also, I am proud of my involvement in the creation of creating collaborations to support LGBTQI+ Older Adults among governmental, nonprofit, and private organizations.

What are you most proud of regarding the achievements of your organization, your work and/or your community activities when it comes to the Pride movement?

With Sonoma County Pride, I am most proud of how we managed continuing to serve our community during the pandemic, in 2020 and 2021. With no precedence or manual for hosting an alternative event, we created a virtual Pride experience in 2020.

Building up to it, we provided small meet ups in order to film personal videos so we could include our community in our virtual Pride event, via video we showed during the virtual event.

And now, in 2021, we are offering a wider variety of events than ever before, with the intention to serve all our community members, of varying interests, ages, and abilities.

Words that best describe you: Community, enthusiasm, Santa Rosan, service

As a successful professional, what were the biggest obstacles you faced and how did you overcome them?

The biggest obstacle I face is lack of resources available to older adult clients, such as housing, finances, etc. I try to overcome them with my client my brainstorming creative ways and outside of the box methods to meet clients’ needs, whether they be short term or long term solutions.

Now tell us who influenced, mentored or inspired you in the area of the Pride movement, and tell us why:

Ani DiFranco: I heard her music for the first time, and it was the first time I heard lyrics that reflected my feelings of protest and resistance against the mainstream, my feelings of community and relationship, and inspired a strength to explore and express who I might authentically be.

Ellen DeGeneres: The coming out episode aired while I was coming out. I watched it with a large group of LGBT strangers at an event in San Diego. That evening is one of the many significant incidences in my early years, where I deeply felt the feeling of community, family, and pride that is so important in our community.

These important moments / chapters in my life created an internal feeling of “connectedness” that motivates me and inspires the work I do.

Current reading: Sophia Chang: “The Baddest B**ch in the Room: A Memoir” --Strong, inspiring Asian American woman

Most want to meet: Ani DiFranco

Stress relievers: Running in Annadel

Favorite activities outside work: Running in Annadel; Time with my family and friends; photography / videography; enjoying Sonoma County beauty

Those who care about you, what would they say are your best qualities: Energetic, inclusive

Always considering the voices less heard and the needs of those less represented

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