Central City Concern

Providing comprehensive solutions to ending homelessness
and achieving self-sufficiency.

National Volunteer Week: Final Thoughts from CCC’s Volunteer Coordinator

Apr 17, 2015

Strolling throughout downtown Portland, or most anywhere in Portland for that matter, it can be difficult not to sheepishly eye the rows of sleeping bags, pass along a spare coin or dollar to every outreached hand, or read the handwritten messages upon various pieces of cardboard. A few folks might stop, share a few words with the owner of that sleeping bag, outreached hand, or piece of cardboard, and walk away from the conversation wondering what is being done - or what can be done - to get them a bed, job, or the care they may need.

It is this internal questioning and curiosity that brings many individuals to Central City Concern wondering who and how they can help in giving one of their most personal and valuable resources - time.

CCC’s volunteers are not only some of the most compassionate, patient, and friendly individuals who step through our doors, but they are also the ones doing it without any expectation of compensation. Looking at the impact of our volunteers over the last 12 months, one can quantify their efforts in any number of ways. With over 8,500 hours put forth, a financial impact of over $175,000 (the equivalent of paying monthly utilities for 1,731 Portland homes) and the thousands of sincere smiles, handshakes, and waves given, CCC’s volunteers, simply put, help us do more and do better. 

From sorting donated clothing with our textile management project to sorting data and entering it into a spreadsheet, or teaching patients how to properly take their new prescription in our Old Town Clinic Pharmacy to teaching residents of CCC housing how to creatively express themselves, the variety of ways our volunteers have the ability to simply “help” never ceases to amaze me. Not only are these individuals working to improve the community in which they live and we all share, but they are also choosing to place themselves at the center of social change.

The catalyst for many of our volunteers is a simple one – they notice a problem in their community, and they want to do something about it. What separates volunteers from many others, though, is that they are taking action. Through acts of kindness, generosity, and a belief in a shared responsibility to one another, volunteers are able to keep our communities moving forward. Although the question of “what can be done?” is not a simple one to answer, CCC’s volunteers prove that it is a question that can be answered in many different ways.

On behalf of Central City Concern and those we serve, thank you to volunteers, both within our programs and everywhere else, who are making a tremendous impact in their communities one week, one day, and one moment at a time. 

Eric Reynolds, Volunteer Coordinator

Volunteering in the Living Room - Part 3

Apr 16, 2015

We’ve heard from the Living Room volunteers. We’ve also heard from Central City Concern clients. Today, Robin Robberson, the Living Room Coordinator, and Erika Armsbury, Old Town Recovery Center’s Director of Clinical Services, share their thoughts about the value and virtue of volunteerism in the Living Room.

• • •

How do volunteers benefit from giving their time in the Living Room?
Robin: People are really moved by volunteering in the Living Room. They really enjoy the Healing and Recovery group. Sometimes they work out their schedule to make sure they can be a part of that and participate in that with our members. I think that helps our members.

And the relationships. The people. Volunteers are struck by the kindness. Some of our members may present themselves in a way that might scare people at first, but eventually volunteers don’t want to leave because of the relationships they make.

Erika: I think what we all get from being here in this building (Old Town Recovery Center) is an opportunity to be of service. For a lot of people, that’s a drive. I think it’s an honor and a privilege to be invited into people’s lives and to experience people’s lives that others would never imagine has the richness that it does.

You have a front-row humanistic experience that other people drive by and don’t even notice. Your ideas and myths about people living with mental illnesses and living without homes totally get dispelled.

What’s the most important quality an individual brings to volunteerism, whether in the Living Room or in general?
E: I think compassion. I think any volunteer experience can be deeper if it comes from being driven by service, not just by gain.

R: Open-mindedness.

E: Definitely open-mindedness. And a willingness to do more listening than talking. Coming in understanding that you have something to learn and that you’re not coming in to do. Let’s be honest: being service-driven can have a flip side where a person wants to just come in and “fix the poor people.” Compare that to coming into our world – this world – and just being an ear. That can actually help a person more. Creating and taking advantage of opportunities to engage.

R: Like that saying, “Don’t just do something. Sit there!” But truly, having an open mind and just being willing goes a long way.

E: It’s the same quality that’s good for clinicians is good for volunteers. A willingness to engage on the same level. To come into the room and equalize the power differential.

What makes volunteering in the Living Room a unique experience?
R: In the Living Room, we never talk about diagnoses. We never talk about medication. It’s highly discouraged to bring up clinical stuff. And for volunteers, that helps create this environment that is centered on people. Just people.

You’re coming into a center that you know is a community mental health clinic, and you know that. But when you’re here volunteering, you’re creating relationships with people. When volunteers come in, they become just as much a member of the Living Room as someone who is receiving services here.

E: I think that volunteering here provides a level of exposure and compassion that I think ultimately has to have an effect on the volunteer when they go back out into the world. Like, form volunteering here, they can have a myth about mental illness or addiction or homelessness dispelled, and then they’re talking with someone else about it, and so on. I think about the far-reaching effects of that and how it can change people’s lives when they’re here.

How do you see Living Room members benefiting from the presence of volunteers?
R: Members get attached volunteers. But that’s why I try to get a lot of volunteers coming through the Living Room: so that they can make lots of different relationships and de-institutionalize and get to build social skills with a whole bunch of different people.

E: Like getting accustomed to a start and end.

R: Right, having that kind of practice is really useful and helpful. It helps people learn flexibility, which is really important for the folks who utilize our services.

And there’s a ripple effect for a Living Room member who comes in here and meets a volunteer that they don’t know, who gives them their undivided attention. And that happening over and over again with different volunteers. It really builds people’s self-worth.

Can you share something that simply would not have happened if it weren’t for volunteers?
R: There’s a member of the Living Room who, on first glance, you’d think is just a grumpy old man. He and several other older members regularly participate in yoga sessions led by our yoga volunteers, Andrea and E.B. He acts like he hates it, but he really doesn’t. I’ll hear him in the same breath, say “I hate this. Now what do I do?”

He participates in yoga week after week. Every time. Why? Because he knows that someone cares about him.

It took us half a year to get people to participate. But the yoga volunteers kept showing up, kept coming and participating in group sessions. And they kept putting the time in to get to know people. It’s the relationships that our yoga volunteers have built with our Living Room members that makes all of this work.

Any last thoughts?
E: I started off as a volunteer at Bradley Angle house 20 years ago. Volunteering fed my soul. I hope that’s what it does for our volunteers, too.

R: I love how diverse our volunteers are. I love that we have younger volunteers and older volunteers and people of all kinds. Some volunteers have been touched personally by mental illness in their families. Other volunteers come in here with little understanding of mental illness or addictions, but they are willing to be present. I love our volunteers.

• • •

During National Volunteer Week, we’re exploring the value and impact of volunteerism at Central City Concern through the lens of the Living Room, a program of the Old Town Recovery Center (OTRC). Earlier this week, we’ve seen shared:

CCC’s Volunteer Coordinator, Eric Reynolds, will be sharing some final thoughts about volunteers tomorrow.

The Living Room is a shared, safe place for OTRC patients, many of whom are actively living with and managing behavioral and mental illness. It functions as a place for clients to come and engage in group sessions, hang out, find community, and participate in group activities. Anyone who participates in the Living Room – clients, CCC staff members, interns, and volunteers alike – is known as a member.

Volunteering in the Living Room - Part 2

Apr 15, 2015

Today, we’re hearing from the stars of the week: the volunteers themselves!  We spoke with two volunteers, Marie and Jim, about their volunteer experience in the Living Room.

• • •

How long have you been volunteering at the Living Room?
Jim: About 14 months.

Marie: I started in January, so it’s been almost four whole months.

What is your history with volunteering? Had you volunteered anywhere else before?
J: Before volunteering in the Living Room, I volunteered for two years at Adventist Medical Center. I volunteered when I was a teenager, too. I was encouraged to do it growing up, but it’s something that I grew to like as I’ve gotten older.

M: I was definitely encouraged to volunteer while I was in high school. Some of it was required, but I really enjoyed it.

I was also part of a long-term volunteer position at an organization that provided respite for parents of children with disabilities, so it’s been an important part of my life.

What do you do in the Living Room when you come in to volunteer?
J: I help serve breakfast and lunch. I participate in the health group from 9 to 10 in the morning. Then after, I sit and talk with the members. A lot of the time I participate with members in arts and crafts or music activities. In general, I just hang out with the members. Some members spend some time sitting by themselves and I’ll just go over and start talking with them and it gives them the feeling that they’re part of the Living Room.

M: Well, I usually end up doing dishes and helping clean up. It’s important to me that the food service area is clean. Who wants to eat food off a disorganized or dirty table? It’s not fair for anyone to have to eat like that. The members deserve a clean space too!

There are usually people who I’ll talk to everyday. They want to catch up with me and I want to catch up with them. Sometimes I’ll walk around, sit next to somebody new,  ask how they’re doing. Often, the really basic questions will turn into something more.

Why do you volunteer?
J: It makes me feel good to be able to help. I know that I can’t do a lot because I’m not an employee but I can do what I can offer and walk out of the Living Room at 11:30 and feel pretty good about it the past couple hours.

I’m getting experience, too. I’m in an alcohol and drug counseling program to become a counselor, so I’m getting to gain experience interacting with people from diverse populations. That’s exactly what I want to do. 

M: I want my presence in the Living Room to show that I want to be there, that it’s important for me to be there, and that spending time with the members is important to me. Sometimes I think, “Geez, look at me. I’m inexperienced. I’m naïve. What good can I, a 20-year-old sheltered girl, provide for the members at all with all they’re going through?” But I think about that and what I can be is someone who genuinely cares about what you’re going through in that moment and can listen. I volunteer so I can be another person who is there and who cares.

What do you feel like you “bring to the table” when you volunteer?
J: I’m not in recovery or personally live with mental illness myself, so I bring in that world from the outside. I’m learning about what the world is like for people in recovery and/or living with mental illness, a perspective I knew nothing about. How the rest of the world can sometimes treat people with those struggles. I’m hoping I can change how the world of people who don’t personally identify with those struggles treats folks who do by coming into the Living Room and treating them just as anyone else.

M: I really enjoy talking to people and getting to know people and I figured going into the Living Room and being an engaging hand in this tight-knit community would help it be stronger. I don’t feel like I have a concrete skill to share (like knitting or drawing), but I have a positive attitude and love just being there with the members.

What have you learned through volunteering?
J: When I walk down the street in Portland, I am much more aware of the humanity and stories around me. And you know, I thought I had patience. I’ve learned that I don’t have as much and I’ve learned to be more patient. I watch the social workers who come in and work with the Living Room members and I learn just from watching. How they just sit and talk and are present with them.

M: I’ve learned a lot about working with the population of people who face addictions and mental illness in their daily lives. On a day to day basis, attending a private university, I interact with pretty much the same type of people. I knew volunteering here would be different from my daily life. I’ve learned that this is a place for recovery… using this community and the hope in it as a part of recovery from addiction and mental health.

I’ve learned so much from everybody: about “social work-y” things, about boundaries, but also about the struggles that this population manages daily, and about myself.

Why do you choose to donate your time to CCC and the Living Room?
J: It is a wonderful experience to volunteer at the Living Room. All the people – both the members as well as other staff at OTRC – are so nice to work with. The members I talk with and I have great conversations.

M: It’s about giving back, but it’s also an investment about what I can learn, too. But on a daily basis, it’s about the opportunity to interact with these folks and build ongoing relationships. It’s not impersonal – I know these people and they know who I am, and I’m slowly learning more about them. I love the direct personal relationships. I’m not financially compensated, but I feel I get compensated in so many other valuable ways. The things I learn and having an impact on the environment I’m in. Just knowing that my work and my time went into something to make it better and to function better makes the choice for me.

What is an experience you had while volunteering that made you realize you were making a difference? Or made you smile, or was extra meaningful?
J: One of the members caught me right outside the Living Room. He said that he and another member were in a bit of a disagreement and he didn’t feel terribly comfortable going back into the Living Room until it was resolved. I listened patiently, accompanied him inside, and explained with him to Robin [the Living Room program manager] what the situation was, and she helped resolve it.

Afterward, Robin told me that the guy who first approached me “pretty much never speaks. I’m so surprised you got him to talk!” And the fact of the matter is, he came up to me! He looked right at me and said “I’ve got a problem. Can you can help me?” I think he knew that I could be trusted because I’m there every week. He’s seen me around hanging out with Living Room members, and maybe that’s why he trusted me.

M: Recently, there was an incident between two members that started to get out of hand. One of the members reacted really strongly. I wasn’t used to somebody reacting for intensely. But as the situation de-escalated, he opened up to some of us who were there and shared some really important stuff.

I believe that our presence was important to him in that moment. Afterward, he told me “thank you so much for talking with me. Looking into your eyes made me feel like I was human again.”

 • • •

During National Volunteer Week, we’re exploring the value and impact of volunteerism at Central City Concern through the lens of the Living Room, a program of the Old Town Recovery Center (OTRC). So far, we’ve seen the collective impact of volunteers across all of CCC programs and have also heard what two individuals who utilize the Living Room’s services appreciate about our volunteers.

Tomorrow, we’ll hear from staff members who oversee the Living Room and their perspectives on the importance of volunteers.

The Living Room is a shared, safe place for OTRC patients, many of whom are actively living with and managing behavioral and mental illness. It functions as a place for clients to come and engage in group sessions, hang out, find community, and participate in group activities. Anyone who participates in the Living Room – clients, CCC staff members, interns, and volunteers alike – is known as a member.

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