(Volunteers are the lifeblood of nonprofits in Central Oregon | Photo courtesy of Bethlehem Inn)
It can be said that Central Oregon is a region full of people who care about each other. There are countless numbers of nonprofits here that tackle everything from essentials such as housing, food and clothing to addiction recovery and mental and physical health screenings for adults and children. For those in need, there are a multitude of resources available to lend a hand.
For this edition of Cascade Business News, we checked in with a number of local nonprofits to see how things are going in light of the struggles the past year has brought. The services that these stellar organizations provide are needed and appreciated more than ever before, and for that we say thank you! Here are what a few of them had to say.
United Way of Central Oregon
“This is a very challenging time for our organization right now,” says Ken Wilhelm, executive director of United Way of Central Oregon. “Our community fundraising season has started, and we’re now in our second year of having to do most of it virtually. We haven’t been able to hold an event for more than 18 months. All our board and committee meetings are conducted via Zoom. Many community members are still really hurting. The urgent, growing houseless situation is distressing evidence of that.”
Compared to last year at this time, Wilhelm says the immediate influx of federal and state emergency relief funding has shifted to longer-term recovery efforts and investment in economic development, job creation, affordable housing and childcare. “These are all good things to invest in, but, at the same time, rent relief programs and unemployment support are mostly gone, and those public support dollars are not available to help nonprofit agencies,” he says. “It seems like everyone has been worn down and worn out trying to cope with the pandemic, which drags on and on.”
Wilhelm says that United Way of Central Oregon now has in place the adaptations needed to do business virtually that had to be created last year, but that the organization has suffered a lot of turnover at both the staff and board volunteer level. “Emotions are running high in our community. There’s frustration and antagonism over COVID vaccination, masks, mandates, etc., and, more recently, the tragic shooting of a young man of color on our downtown streets.” He adds, “As a community, we could surely benefit from more understanding, tolerance and compassion. That’s incumbent on each of us. We’re devoting a lot of time and energy into our ongoing efforts to be a more equitable and inclusive organization. That’s difficult work.”
The news is not all bad, however, Wilhelm says. “Here’s a piece of good news: Contributions are up so far this year over last year, and in fact, ahead of the last three years. It’s been driven in large part by some of our loyal individual donors giving more and earlier this year. We’ve invested more grant funding in Crook and Jefferson counties and Warm Springs.”
Family Access Network (FAN)
Children have certainly felt the effects of the pandemic, and although there was much uncertainty over the return to full-time live instruction this year, most parents and kids were relieved about the return to a sense of normalcy. Family Access Network (FAN) helps families in need through the positioning of advocates in each of the schools.
“FAN advocates are busy helping students as they start the new school year, with items like school supplies, clothing, hygiene and more. It’s a very busy time of year, and we are so happy to be able to have the students back in the schools,” says Julie N. Lyche, executive director of FAN. “Last year, the FAN advocates spent much of the start of the year ensuring students had access to distance learning, with a heavy focus on hotspots on low-cost access to internet. This year, we are able to place school supplies directly into the hands of students to provide them with a good start to the year.”
Since the onset of the pandemic, Lyche says FAN advocates have worked more intensely with families as they have navigated the loss of jobs, childcare, illness and more. “As we are back serving families within the schools, we are better able to help those students who were off the radar during distance learning.” She continues, “The local community has stepped up and been wonderful in supporting the work of the FAN advocates, by helping with school supplies, hygiene items, eviction prevention supports and so much more. We couldn’t do this work without our strong partners and donors.”
At Bethlehem Inn, Executive Director Gwenn Wysling says that although COVID-19 “turned normal life upside down with amazing swiftness last year,” she is happy to report that the individuals staying at the Inn are healthy and staying safe. “I’m proud to say that the Bethlehem Inn staff acted just as swiftly, knowing that the pandemic and emergency public measures would negatively impact the vulnerable population served by the Inn if we didn’t react fast enough.” She adds, “Thanks to the support of our community and our quick-acting staff, we managed a fast-paced pivot to keep our residents and staff safe. We continued our operation, while safely implementing guidelines established by the CDC and state of Oregon.”
Wysling says that the past year has been eventful for Bethlehem Inn. “A lot has happened in the past year! With the necessary protocols established last year, I’m proud to share that this year, we continue to implement those procedures. We’re honored that our donors continue to demonstrate their compassion and support through both financial and in-kind donations at unprecedented levels.”
It is that level of community support, she says, that will play a large role in the organization’s ability to successfully expand services into the city of Redmond this fall. “The 2021 HLC PIT (Homeless Leadership Coalition Point in Time) count demonstrated the increasing number of people experiencing homelessness in Central Oregon, many of which are living in Redmond. So we knew it was time to increase the number of high-barrier shelter beds in Redmond, and that now was the time to act.”
With the approval of Project Turnkey grant funding earlier this year, Wysling reports that the Inn was able to purchase a motel in Redmond, and renovations are currently winding down. “We plan to open at the end October with the ultimate goal of providing up to 88 people with safe shelter on a nightly basis. We are honored to have Deschutes County’s support and investment of $900,000 to help close the gap and enable us to complete and furnish the new shelter.” She adds, “Our donors, both large and small, continue to support us in spite of the challenging times.”
At Healthy Beginnings, a nonprofit dedicated to readying children for school by providing free assessments for children ages 0 to 5, the pace has picked up this fall. “We have returned to the new normal in terms of our work. We are very excited about that,” says Kathleen Cody, executive director of Healthy Beginnings. “There is momentum. Parents seem to once again be back in their normal school-planning mode; we got lots of calls in August regarding screenings. We got really busy and have stayed busy. But we have seen a little drop in the past couple of weeks with concern over the Delta variant.”
Healthy Beginnings accomplishes its mission of “ensuring that all our children enter their school lives ready to learn, contribute and thrive” by conducting free comprehensive health and developmental assessments. Cody, who joined the organization in November of 2020, says that when she first came on, Healthy Beginnings was almost at a dead stop. “Comparing September of 2020 to September 2021, we had no screenings in preschools in 2020. For open public community screenings, last year, we had none, no screening events of any kind.” This year, however, there were 17 pre-school screenings scheduled in September, and there is a public community screening scheduled every month for the next several months, she says, adding that they have been able to conduct two events that allowed for vision screenings for 124 kids.
As scheduling increases, Cody says they are now playing catch-up. “We have a backlog; typically we will screen 500-700 kids in a year; but we have hundreds of children we would have screened but didn’t due to the lockdown, so we have catch-up work to do. Our kids age out quickly; we serve birth to 5; so if you don’t catch a four-year-old at just right time, they age out.”
Although Healthy Beginnings was stifled in terms of conducting screenings last year, the organization stayed afloat by obtaining Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) assistance, Cody says. “We were able to sustain our work, plus, many if not all, the grant foundations were very lenient and opened their doors and their coffers and provided a tremendous amount of emergency relief just so we could make payroll.”
This year, Cody says Healthy Beginnings is having to get back onto the fundraising wagon. “It’s a little more difficult now to tap into grant funding, because they are back to normal protocols. I’m noticing it’s not flowing as easily as it did last year.” She adds, “The gist is that we realize that individuals are our biggest support. They are the ones you count on, individual donors and businesses. Our main fundraising event was cancelled in 2020 and postponed in 2021 due to Delta. We have moved it twice in a row; so when the fundraising events are cancelled and grant funding has slowed down, individual donors are that much more important.”
The bright spot, she says, is that COVID has taught the team at Healthy Beginnings how to work remotely and still maintain productivity and teamwork. “And it made us re-think how we do our work,” she says. “We’ve been around 25 years, and COVID forced us to look at our model and how we needed to change it.”