Horse Sense: Polo Players Help People Helping People

By Steven Libowitz   |   February 7, 2023
The victorious team at the 2018 Santa Ynez Valley Polo Classic with players Nacho Figueras, Matt Ladin, T.J. Barrack, and patron Tom Barrack (photo by Lindsey Drewes Photography)

When the seemingly endless series of atmospheric river rainstorms drenched the area last month, people from Santa Barbara, Lompoc, or Santa Maria whose houses were flooded could find shelter and services at local facilities that are set up for just such emergencies. 

Not so much for residents of the Santa Ynez Valley. 

“We don’t have a shelter, long-term or emergency, or any of those types of safety nets here,” explained Erica Jane Flores, Development Director for valley nonprofit People Helping People (PHP). “So if you live and work or go to school on Paradise Road, or in Rancho Oso or anywhere in the Valley, and were displaced by the rain, heading far outside the Valley isn’t really a solution.” 

Thankfully, People Helping People was able to instantly step in. 

“We had 16 individuals, including four children, who were evacuated or displaced and were essentially homeless as a result of the storms and flooding,” Flores said. “We didn’t have access to Federal or local government dollars, but we were able to put these people into hotels for extended periods of time right away. And it was 100 percent private donations that allowed us to meet that need at a moment’s notice.” 

PHP is in its 30th year as the primary human service organization for the Santa Ynez Valley, Los Alamos, and surrounding areas, a time span that has seen the organization mushroom from its founding as a weekly food distribution program created by local community members to address food insecurity to a full-service agency with myriad programs to aid those living on the margins. While providing food continues to be one of PHP’s core programs – including an expanded outdoor food pantry during the pandemic – services have expanded to include the areas of mental wellness, alcohol and drug prevention, healthcare and enrolling in health insurance, housing insecurity and homelessness, with the nonprofit having unified under one roof almost any public assistance residents of the Santa Ynez Valley might need.

That need is larger than people who only know the Santa Ynez Valley for its wineries and acclaimed restaurants might realize. Even as owners of many of those businesses are tremendous supporters of People Helping People, Flores has personally delivered groceries to cooks and waiters of those restaurants.

“We’re a remote area that is heavily dependent on agriculture and tourism,” she said. “The [income] gaps that you find here are great and have only become greater in recent years.”

Fortunately, PHP’s budget has also ballooned from $45,000 in its first year to more than $2.5 million today. 

Brian and Shamra Strange, John Kuelbs, and event co-chair Alanna Tarkington at the 2022 Santa Ynez Valley Polo Classic (photo by Priscilla)

For more than a decade, a sizable portion of those dollars – and all of PHP’s emergency budget, including the funds that housed those 16 people displaced by January’s rainstorms – have come from the Santa Ynez Valley Polo Classic. The one-day extravaganza boasts three different polo matches – juniors, women, and a featured match starring accomplished local players and highly-rated polo veterans seen regularly during high-goal season at the Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club, plus a players’ party, VIP luncheon, silent auction, and more.

The event was the brainchild of Joel Baker, the former coach of the U.S. Olympic polo team who lives locally in the Santa Ynez Valley. 

“He’s very active within the polo community, which is really philanthropic, and had a vision of how polo could become the basis for a real mutually beneficial event,” Flores said. “Having a polo match would elevate and support an important cause, polo and the athletes and horses would be recognized in the philanthropic community, and all of it would elevate the Santa Ynez Valley itself as a wonderful destination.” 

The first was held at Baker’s Circle JB Polo Ranch and was an immediate success, drawing more than 600 people. Four years later, the annual SYV Polo Classic’s continued popularity necessitated a move to Piocho Ranch at Happy Canyon Vineyards in Santa Ynez, where the beauty and cache of the family ranch and vineyards continue to make the event more successful every year, drawing attendees from Montecito and Carpinteria as well as the L.A. and Bay areas.

“People love to come to this incredible event that has a backdrop of the truly beautiful valley and as a result they get to learn about and support our mission of people helping people,” Flores said. “Some of them end up moving here, and they call us right up to volunteer. It really is a win-win-win.” 

The 2023 event is slated for June 10 and once again will feature Bakerand Meghan Gracida, the accomplished polo player who is married to top rated player Memo Gracida, who will also appear in the featured match. Multiple sponsorship opportunities are available in a variety of tiers; information is available online in a full color brochure at VIP and Wine Club tickets, which offer an elevated experience at the event that has become a highlight of the annual calendar in Santa Ynez Valley, will go on sale soon.

But unlike a typical fancy fundraising banquet or limited seating gala, the classic is not only for the hoi polloi. General admission tickets cost only $25, and children admitted for $15. 

“We try to welcome and make sure that there is a price point and experience for everybody where you get to be up close with polo and the horses,” Flores said. “Whether you’re an enthusiast or a first timer, it’s a great day in the valley. And no matter how you participate – as a sponsor, a donor, as a GA attendee, you can feel good that you are empowering and emboldening PHP to realize our mission all year long.”  

Santa Ynez Valley People Helping People
Erica Jane Flores, Director of Development & Communications
(805) 686-0295


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