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The application automates the process of matching gift-giving sponsors with families in need.
As the holiday season approaches, officials at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services (DPSS) are happily watching applications to sponsor families in need roll in -- potentially doubling the program’s reach in 2019.
That’s not to say that employees of the department’s Toy Loan and Volunteer Services (TLVS) Division are glad the need is so great -- just that they are pleased they can now better meet those needs after developing an app that automates family and sponsor matching.
Since the Adopt-A-Family program’s inception about 30 years ago, it has been paper-based. Families with active cases at DPSS looking for sponsorship in the program, filled out paper forms with their department contacts that specified their "wish list" items -- toys, groceries, clothing and gift certificates. Those contacts faxed or mailed the form to TLVS, which oversees the program, and employees there physically searched for sponsor matches among stacks of papers organized according to geographic region and family size.
For instance, a sponsor might submit a paper form asking to provide gifts for a family of two in the Hollywood area. One of TLVS’ six staff members would look through a physical pile of client applications that fit those requirements.
In 2017, the division worked with DPSS’ IT department to build a web-based Adopt-A-Family application. Built in less than a year using an Oracle Application Express platform and hosted at the county’s data center, the app now automatically makes those matches, saving time and increasing accuracy, said Marcia Blachman, administrative services manager at TLVS, adding that she didn’t have specific numbers to quantify either.
“It has changed the program so much, this automation,” Blachman said. “It’s changed our whole business model, and we need to think outside the box now. It’s not just this little, tiny program anymore. It can be so much bigger.”
A DPSS worker still submits a paper or emailed form that a TLVS employee manually enters into the app, but then the app takes over, finding matches and using archival data to make sure the family has not been sponsored before -- a requirement of the program.
Sponsors can register themselves via the app and select details such as the size and geographic location of the family they’d like to help.
TLVS used the app for the first time during the 2018 holiday season and saw the number of families applying for sponsorship jump by 53% over the previous year. The number of sponsors rose by 60% year-over-year. The number of children the program benefitted in 2017 was 2,437, while 3,620 kids got gifts in 2018.
Blachman said TLVS is on track to double 2018’s numbers this year. As of Dec. 5, the division had 1,569 families and 1,137 sponsors participating.
What’s more, she has reduced her staff from six to three, enabling the other employees to work on different assignments. She expects to decrease the number of employees again after this season.
Other benefits include giving TLVS staff access to real-time data on sponsorships and clients, improved management of matches and pending clients and tracking of online sponsor applications.
Blachman and IT Manager Del Benavides are already looking to the future. Specifically, they want to upgrade the app so that DPSS employees can enter families directly, and they are considering ways to enable families to register themselves. Because the program requires recipients to be active DPSS clients, cross-referencing and other steps would be necessary, Benavides said.
“I think that this has been a great application,” he said. “Just seeing the results of a small automation has been pretty admirable. I don’t think we knew that we could get this kind of change by just automating the process.”
IT tends to focus on big projects such as data mining, but this effort proves that big changes can come from small projects. Benavides speaks from experience as both a technologist and a program participant -- the IT division has sponsored at least one family for each of the past two or three years.
Blachman said having the automation makes her wonder why TLVS didn’t create an app sooner. The answer is that the team members simply didn’t think of it as an option; they were mired in a “this is how we’ve always done it” mentality.
“I think we were always too scared that if it got too big, we wouldn’t be able to handle it," she said. "But now I think we’ve got the confidence to expand, meaning promote it more, so that more families can apply.”
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