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WesternU College of Pharmacy professor’s Symba Center to provide services at Victorville Wellness Center

by Rodney Tanaka

December 15, 2023

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The city of Victorville celebrated the opening of the Victorville Wellness Center Campus, which will provide full medical, social and support services to sheltered and unsheltered individuals to help them stabilize and rebuild their lives.

Western University of Health Sciences College of Pharmacy Assistant Professor Shawn Smith, PharmD, (right) and Dr. Bowtie Brian, the co-founders of Symba Center, at the Victorville Wellness Center opening Dec. 8, 2023. (Jeff Malet, WesternU)

Symba Center, the brainchild of Western University of Health Sciences College of Pharmacy Assistant Professor Shawn Smith, PharmD, and his friend and co-founder Dr. Bowtie Brian, will provide primary care, mental health, recuperative care, substance use disorder counseling, housing navigation, case management, job readiness training and financial literacy skills in partnership with Hope the Mission.

Victorville administration, city council members, and their collaborators celebrated the ribbon-cutting for the wellness center on Dec. 8, 2023. Integrating health care in homeless services is essential, Dr. Smith said.

“We know that lack of stable housing has a negative impact on overall health and life expectancy, so this makes recovery and healing much more difficult for folks without housing living on the street,” Smith said. “And that is what Symba Center’s role is specifically on this project. We believe in an interdisciplinary team model where all professionals can thrive in their specialty area and add value to the team to better serve the client. Everything is about the client, ensuring they have every resource available to them to be successful in achieving their goals.

“I truly believe the services provided at this facility will transform the way that homeless and health care services are provided,” Smith added. “We have an opportunity here, in the city of Victorville, to create a new gold standard.”

Victorville City Manager Keith Metzler served as master of ceremonies at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Victorville Wellness Center Dec. 8, 2023. (Jeff Malet, WesternU)

The development of the center resulted from the community demanding that the city address the homeless issue, said Victorville City Manager Keith Metzler. In developing strategies to help the unsheltered, the city learned how complex the issue is, and that they would have to build something monumental to make a positive impact. 

“We needed to address the full spectrum of issues that can lead to homelessness, and most importantly, all necessary support services, including medical care, that needed to be on site in one campus,” Metzler said.

The city’s Homelessness Solutions Task Force teamed with service agencies to envision an innovative center like no other, he said. Victorville constructed the Wellness Center Campus on 4.5 acres of city-owned land at 16902 First St., Victorville, Calif., 92395. The city received $28 million from the California Homekey Grant Program, administered by the California Department of Housing and Community Development.

“This is a haven of hope, healing and opportunity that will break the cycle of homelessness and improve the quality of life for so many in our community,” Metzler said. “I’m filled with immense pride for the team that made this happen.”

Victorville City Planner Scott Webb speaks at the Victorville Wellness Center opening Dec. 8, 2023. (Jeff Malet, WesternU)

Victorville City Planner Scott Webb said this is the first facility of its kind to combine a low-barrier emergency shelter providing “110 non-congregate interim housing units that will provide dignified privacy and security for 170 of our most vulnerable population. The campus also includes recuperative care services that will alleviate strain on local hospitals by freeing up needed bed capacity.”

The campus also includes a state-licensed primary care medical clinic, a commercial kitchen, classroom space, recreational amenities, animal care, and office space for intense case management and support services designed to return people to stability.

“As you can see by the components of this campus, its trailblazing design addresses the whole person in their quest for optimal health and wellness,” Webb said.

The City of Victorville has the second-highest concentration of homeless persons in all of San Bernardino County. California’s housing crisis has forced cities to address major social issues like homelessness without adequate resources and infrastructure to resolve the problem, according to Victorville’s website.

Victorville Mayor Debra Jones said the wellness center will help the unhoused gain stability and rebuild their lives. (Jeff Malet, WesternU)

“We are excited to open this center that will help the unhoused in our community gain stability and rebuild their lives,” said Victorville Mayor Debra Jones. “Our wellness center is born of a precise strategy – increase access to shelter, health care and support services. Much more than concrete buildings, this campus is a home. It’s a haven of wellness, self-discovery, and, yes, new beginnings. Our Victorville Wellness Center is special because of its unique incorporation of a full breadth of on-site support services such as substance abuse counseling, job training and placement, public benefits assistance, pet care, housing navigation, mental health services, a medical clinic, and recuperative care. As you tour the facility today, you will see just how unique and innovative our approach is. Our wellness center serves as a model for how jurisdictions can help the unhoused and demonstrates what is possible through collaboration at all levels.”

In speaking to the guests attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Dr. Smith thanked the city of Victorville and Hope the Mission for partnering with Symba Center.

“The investment you have made in this project to serve the homeless is inspiring and we are humbled to be awarded the contract by the city council to serve here,” Smith said. “Thank you to city council members and staff, who we have been working with the past few years to see this vision come together. This facility is our first, our flagship, and Victorville will always be our home and we have the city council and staff who welcomed us with open arms to thank for that.”

WesternU College of Pharmacy Professor and Chair of the Department of Pharmacy Practice and Administration Cynthia Jackevicius, BScPhm, PharmD, MSc, APh, BCPS, BCCP, FCSHP, FAHA, FCCP, FCCS, FACC, (right) attended the Victorville Wellness Center ribbon-cutting ceremony in support of Dr. Shawn Smith. (Jeff Malet, WesternU)

He also thanked WesternU for supporting his vision for Symba Center.

“When I first came back to California after residency, I got a position at Western University of Health Sciences, and my dean at the time, Dr. Dan Robinson, as well as my department chair, Dr. Cynthia Jackevicius, who is here today, supported this initiative fully and allowed me to train students at this site and come up to Victorville and provide services,” Smith said. “So without Western University of Health Sciences, Symba Center would not exist.”

Finally, he thanked his friend and Symba Center co-founder Dr. Bowtie Brian. They developed the concept of Symba Center in 2017 in their Loma Linda University dorm room.

“We had a desire to see communities transformed by integrating systems, excellence of service, and deep care and compassion for people. We believe that people deserve better,” Smith said. “We envisioned a community center where those who needed any social service could have it all in one place. We didn’t know at the time what it would look like, where it would be, or when it would materialize, but we prayed that our gifts would be used for good. Now, we are here on this campus with an amazing team and partners in Hope the Mission and the city of Victorville to see this come together. Bowtie Brian, thank you for your friendship over the years and sharing this vision with me.

“Symba was born out of friendship, that endured highs and lows, and now we can stand together with the city and Hope the Mission and all of you to live out this dream,” Smith said. “When I reflect on all of the people involved, the timing, and the collective vision I think of God’s providence guiding and directing our paths to this point. Because we are better together, our clients can expect a brighter tomorrow.”

Victorville city officials and their collaborators, including WesternU College of Pharmacy Assistant Professor Shawn Smith, PharmD, cut the ribbon for the Victorville Wellness Center Dec. 8, 2023. (Jeff Malet, WesternU).

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