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Tricia Forbes makes the serious work of SIMS fun

Michael Barnes, Out & About

Michael Barnes
mbarnes@statesman.com
Tricia Forbes has been at SIMS Foundation since 2009 and has doubled the staff to provide quicker mental health service to musicians.

Although she runs a serious nonprofit, Tricia Forbes is one of the fun people. Like her friends, publicist Elaine Garza and nonprofit consultant Victoria Neal,Forbes can make almost any talk or task lighter, brighter, more palatable.

Perhaps that's because the leader of the SIMS Foundation, which provides mental health and recovery services to Austin-area musicians, comes from such a bifurcated background. Forbes, 42, grew up in Wilson, N.C., a town of almost 50,000 east of Raleigh, N.C. Her father owned a trucking company, then became a soccer coach; her mother arranges flowers. Kindergarten to 12th grade, she attended the tiny, private Greenfield School, then she studied at Salem College, a small women's school in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"I was quite a bit sheltered," she says dryly through a composed smile. "I remember when I got to college and met my first actual Democrat, I was surprised to learn she didn't have two heads. I also met a vegetarian. I had never even heard of the concept."

Graduate training in social work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill broadened her horizons, but not as much as rebelling against her upbringing by moving to Colorado and becoming a Deadhead, one of those rambling followers of the Grateful Dead.

"You swing one end to the other," she sighs philosophically.

Her next move, to Austin, taking on short-term catering chores and longer-term jobs with charities, brought Forbes some much-needed balance.

"I finally figured out who I am," she says. "I'm not exactly the way my parents thought I'd turn out. I fit into Austin better than anywhere in North Carolina."

Her first real job after graduate school was serving as executive director for awkwardly named ProTex: Network for a Progressive Texas. There, she tried to organize people around social issues, bridging the gaps between the grass-roots and the policy groups.

"With varying levels of success," Forbes adds. "I learned very early that Texas is a big, big state. Organizing Texans is not easy."

After backpacking in Europe for a few months and then consulting for various foundations, she landed at SIMS, sometimes confused with the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, for which SIMS is an affiliate service provider, in April 2009.

"Everything about SIMS attracted me," she says. "I have a lot of musician friends who had used SIMS in the past. You could tell they cared a lot, but it was a pretty laid-back crowd."

Happily, the underfunded and understaffed group had just undergone training through the Greenlights for Nonprofit Success turnaround program.

"We finally had the right team and the right connections," she says. "Twenty years ago, working for a nonprofit, we pretty much had the attitude: ‘We're the good guys, we are helping people, so give us money.' People now want to know how you are being successful."

Among her first moves was to implement a 24-hour rule.

"Anyone who called, we called them back within 24 hours," says Forbes of an obvious choice for a mental-health provider. "To do that, we needed more staff. We took a risk by assuming if we added the staff, funding would follow."

In just two years, Forbes doubled the staff and raised SIMS' budget from $400,000 to $700,000. It serves approximately 700 Austin musicians a year.

One of the group's events, its annual Benefit Bash, hits the Austin Music Hall on Saturday. Meanwhile, big funders like the St. David's Foundation have rewarded the group's newfound accountability.

"We are closely tracking our clients' progress," Forbes says. "We are demonstrating that we are making a real difference with the money."

Part of her personal success comes from working almost every aspect of the nonprofit world for two decades.

"I'm very gregarious. Just a natural networker. I have a knack for bringing people together." she says. "It's all come together in this one job. For the first time I can use all the skills I've learned in one position."

Schatzelein is a new shop on South First Street, just up from West Annie Street. There, owner Christine Fail sells graceful, handmade jewelry and accessories, almost all from contemporary designers. A few pieces of vintage pop up in the tiny, impeccable boutique for women and men.

Fail's timing is impeccable. South First is changing fast. For years, it faltered as a full-service retail district, compared with its neighbors, South Congress Avenue and South Lamar Boulevard. Partly, that's because of narrow sidewalks, but also because City of Austin officials talked periodically about widening the street, which promised interrupted access and crimped parking. That proposal appears to be on hold.

Not that commerce ever opted out completely. South First has been known as the Mexican Food Mile for a string of restaurants extending from El Mercado south to beyond Oltorf Street. A few food and clothing outlets huddled alongside head shops, unpretentious services and convenience stores. Two popular coffee shops have survived the normal churn in the strip centers and converted bungalows.

The retail evolution has sped up, however, in the past few weeks. I count at least three new wellness centers, a third bakery, a new florist shop, several new boutiques and food trailers, along with the promise of innovative eateries from chefs Larry McGuire (Perla's, Lamberts) and Todd Duplechan (Trio).

Has South First's time come?

mbarnes@statesman.com