Human needs services essential to Umatilla County

Agape House Board member Joe McConnell tells Marta Harvil and Jared Lathrop, visitors from the 2010-11 Leadership Hermiston class, about the organization’s services during a recent warehouse tour.

Even in tough economic times, dedicated people work every day of every week to continue to serve those in need in western Umatilla County.

Agape House is one of the largest and best known of Hermiston's community service organizations.

"Agape House began because one person - Kathleen Knudsen - took it upon herself to say ‘I can make a difference in their lives.' Her vision and a lot of hard work has made this organization," director Dave Hughes said in December. "We started as a food bank serving 15 to 20 families. Now we serve 1,000 people."

The organization's programs range from a food bank to showers and hygiene products. The Weekend Backpack Program helps children receive nutrition on the weekends, and volunteers restore furniture and home items.

"For every dollar donated, $7 worth of food and services go out," Agape House board member Joe McConnell said. "When people think Agape House, they think food, and that's a lot of what we do."

Over a 12-month period, Agape House will hand out 8,800 boxes of food. Each box will have supplies to feed a family for at least three days. Over the year, the organization delivers $1.3 million worth of food.

Because of growing services, the organization is expanding into a new building and working on a pilot project to provide overnight shelter for the homeless.

"Agape House has done a good job of providing food and clothing for those in need, but providing a roof overnight is something we haven't been able to do," Hughes said. "The homeless problem in our county is overwhelming, so we are looking to rent a five-bedroom house in the core area to provided temporary emergency shelter for those in need."

Dubbed Martha's House, the program would allow people to check in, have dinner, spend the night, have breakfast and leave at 9 a.m. A house host would remain in the building, and the project - planned to open in March - has gathered support from other organizations as well, including Domestic Violence Services.

DVS is a nonprofit organization that offers counseling and assistance for victims of domestic violence, including spouse abuse and sexual assault. DVS offers shelters in Hermiston and Pendleton, as well as counseling sites in both cities and satellite offices throughout the county. Women and their children can stay in the shelter for up to 30 days before needing to apply for an extension. The organization operates on a $338,000 annual budget.

"Ninety-three percent of our money goes back to the clients," director Marta Harvil said. "We pay for paper, we pay the phone bill, but we have a lot of things donated, like our Internet. We don't buy anything extra.

"I'm the only salaried employee for DVS, so if there's a presentation, I'm it. If there's a special event, I'm it. If there's transportation that needs to be done, I'm it. I don't pay overtime. We want everything to go to services."

While DVS provides options for women and their children, many of Umatilla County's young people will pass through programs run by Umatilla-Morrow Head Start, including daycare and preschool. In the Head Start classroom, low-income children are given nutritious meals, taught to brush their teeth and receive classroom instruction on academics and proper interaction.

"There's a lot that goes into kindergarten readiness before you can work on academics," Umatilla-Morrow Head Start's Cade Burnette said. "We also work on social and emotional skills like being able to play with other children, being able to sit and listen to a story."

Parents of all incomes can take advantage of the childcare referral service offered at the Head Start office on Main Street, which helps match childcare providers and parents looking for childcare, and Head Start also works with CASA - Court Appointed Special Advocates - of Umatilla County. That program trains volunteers to watch over and advocate for abused and neglected children. The volunteers work to secure a safe, permanent home for those children as quickly as possible. Ideally, the program provides a CASA for every child in foster care; currently there are 14 CASA volunteers and 250 foster children in Umatilla County, according to program coordinator Chris Cooper.

While Head Start focuses on children, the Hermiston Senior Center offers services for area residents on the opposite end of the age spectrum. In addition to twice-weekly hot meals - offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays and open to the non-senior public for a charge of $3.50 - the center provides opportunities for socialization, transportation and home delivery of meals.

"Seniors come for a meal and to sit and talk," center vice president Virginia Beebe said. "A lot of our food is donated. I have a cabbage farmer who gives us as much cabbage as we can use every year and won't even take our ID so he can take it off his taxes. We have a lot of farmers who donate, so we have something fresh almost year-round."

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