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Building an agency penny by penny

January 1, 2009
by Brion P. McAlarney
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Ivelise Markovits has been helping California kids since the 1960s

In the mid-1960s, Ivelise Markovits had graduated from college and was working as a probation officer in Los Angeles County. She was given the responsibility of finding appropriate placements for 50 teenage girls.

“These kids had been taken away from their homes either because of abuse or some kind of delinquency, truancy, or generally incorrigible behavior,” recalls Markovits. “Some of them would be detained at juvenile halls, where they didn't really belong because they were together with other kids that had much more serious problems of delinquency.”

Committed to finding an appropriate placement for each of “her girls,” Markovits found few resources for them. “I literally couldn't find appropriate programs for them and decided to do something about it,” she explains. “The counties took care of the boys. They had good forestry camp systems and some very good group homes run by the Catholic Church and other agencies, but there was really nothing for girls.”

So Markovits recruited seven to eight like-minded professionals and started talking about how to address the service shortage. They approached foundations and applied for grants but could not find an organization that would fund the establishment of a placement facility for girls. “They would invariably tell us, ‘You're a bunch of kids. You don't have any track record. Please come back when you're established and you have a track record,’” Markovits remembers.

Ivelise markovits
Ivelise Markovits

Yet with some help from their parents, Markovits and her colleagues pulled together money to purchase an old convalescent home in Altadena, which is where they began Penny Lane Centers. “We were trying to literally get pennies together—that's why [we chose] the name ‘Penny Lane’—to see if we could find a place where we could design a really good program for these kids, for these 50 young girls,” Markovits recounts, noting that the organization also was named after a favorite Beatles song.

Penny Lane started working with 18 teenage girls on December 15, 1969. Struggling financially for the first nine months, Penny Lane turned something bad into something good: After the building's roof collapsed (no one was hurt), the agency used the insurance money to relocate to North Hills, where Penny Lane still has its headquarters.

Over the years, Penny Lane capitalized on the excellent reputation it developed to grow and expand services, documenting a successful track record to obtain new contracts. Within ten years of opening, Penny Lane expanded to serve boys as well, although the agency still works mostly with girls.

Today Penny Lane is a full-service child welfare agency helping 2,200 children and families with a myriad of services, including outpatient mental healthcare, group homes, residential treatment, wraparound services, and foster and family preservation services.

Markovits, Penny Lane's CEO, was recognized in October by California First Lady Maria Shriver with a Minerva Award, which Shriver annually bestows on five extraordinary California women.

“With Penny Lane, Ive has created an outstanding agency, and in these very difficult economic times she provides leadership and a strong voice for policies that provide critical resources and services for California's foster children and youth,” commented Carroll Schroeder, executive director of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services, in a press release congratulating Markovits on receiving a Minerva Award. Markovits' accomplishments also were highlighted on The Oprah Winfrey Show in October.

“The most satisfying thing is when you develop a team of professionals with a clear mission and vision. Then you truly are able to impact people's lives,” says Markovits. “It's difficult, but it is the most rewarding thing to do.”

Brion P. McAlarney is a freelance writer. Behavioral Healthcare 2009 January;29(1):56