When she was recently recognized for her more than two decades of helping the homeless and underserved in Los Angeles, St. Joseph Center executive director Rhonda Meister said she immediately thought of the two people who inspired her to make a difference in the lives of others.

Named the 2007 Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers in Washington, D.C., Meister, 58, said she was reminded of the values she was taught by her late parents.

“I thought of my parents with a lot of gratitude,” said Meister, a Culver City resident who has served as executive director of the St. Joseph Center in Venice since 1986.

Meister, who was both humbled and shocked to receive the citizen of the year honor, said it was her parents who taught her that everyone is important and that people should help those who need it.

“We have a responsibility to help those who need help,” Meister recalled of some of her parents’ messages.

“What really matters is that everyone is in this life to help each other.”

For more than 20 years, Meister has applied those values with her service at the St. Joseph Center, a comprehensive provider of support services for those who are struggling to overcome poverty and achieve self-sufficiency.

Meister joined St. Joseph Center in 1984 as a case manager. She served as acting director in 1985 when the director took a sabbatical, and a year later she assumed her current position.

Meister was living in Venice at the time she joined St. Joseph Center and she says she was particularly interested in the organization because it offered an opportunity to work with homeless people in the local community.

“I appreciated its vision and mission — working to empower people to help themselves,” Meister said of the center.

In the years Meister has been with the center, she says she is most proud of how the organization has grown to cover the needs of many different people.

Founded in 1976, St. Joseph Center had a staff of 12 and just two programs when Meister first became an employee, but the organization has since grown to a staff of about 100, with 11 programs in operation. The center operated out of two rented facilities 20 years ago but has now expanded to eight sites in Santa Monica and Venice, two of which the center owns.

“We’ve developed more comprehensive programming,” Meister said. “We’ve gone from a small grassroots organization to a more professional, developed nonprofit.”

Over the years the center has developed more extensive case management and has added mentoring, after-school and senior programs, Meister said. A number of the youths who have been involved in the mentoring program have gone on to college, she noted.

In selecting Meister for the public citizen of the year honor, National Association of Social Workers officials referred to the “remarkable growth” that St. Joseph Center has experienced under her leadership, including a four-fold increase in staff and budget. Association officials called Meister the “preeminent voice” on Los Angeles’s Westside for those who are poor and marginalized.

“She has been an inspiration to her staff and a real leader in the community,” said Julie Taren, National Association of Social Workers regional director for the Westside. “We really felt that she resembles someone who has the values and ethics of someone who is trained in social work.”

St. Joseph Center associate director Judy Alexander, who has worked with Meister for 14 years, said her citizen of the year award is well deserved.

“She’s recognized throughout the community and she’s really a visionary in putting the needs of the homeless to the forefront,” Alexander said. “Her energy and commitment are an incredible gift to her community, her staff and to the many poor and marginalized men, women and children that her efforts have served so well.”

Meister credited much of St. Joseph Center’s success over the years to the culturally diverse staff members, that she called the “heart” of the organization.

“The staff are the ones who make St. Joseph Center what it is,” she said.

The center has faced its share of challenges in the community during the years, including residents who opposed the relocation of the service center close to a residential neighborhood at Lincoln Boulevard and Flower Avenue last year.

But Meister said center officials have made sure to work with residents on contentious issues to address their concerns and lessen any potential community impacts.

“We see ourselves as part of our community,” she said. “We try hard and expend ourselves to be a good neighbor.”

Among the other challenges facing the center are finding more sites to provide homeless services, as well as raising funds each year for those services, she said.

The St. Joseph Center plans to relocate to a new administrative and family services facility on Hampton Drive sometime next year.

Meister says working at St. Joseph Center has given her the chance to not only help change the lives of the less fortunate, but develop a “family” amongst fellow staff.

“It has been an opportunity to be touched by a lot of different people,” Meister said.