As executive director Dave Hughes, 73, prepares for his departure from Agape House, change is in the air. But the key question keeping the nonprofit alive remains the same, and perhaps Dave puts it best:
“Here’s a need. Can we do something?”
The answer always tries to be yes.
Whether it’s addressing local hunger, housing issues, or cold weather, the people behind Agape House (run with Martha’s House under the umbrella of Eastern Oregon Mission) respond with a community service. And if you ask anyone involved, Dave has been a large part of that for quite some time.
“I’d say he is the most compassionate man I’ve ever met. He sees a need and he wants to fix it,” said Doug Alvarez, who has volunteered with Agape House for the last decade.
When Dave moved with his wife, Jodene, to Hermiston in 2000 to escape the wet climate of western Oregon, he wasn’t thinking of Agape House.
Jodene quickly found work at Banner Bank. Dave put his property appraisal business to rest and started working at Walmart in Pendleton.
“I wanted to give back somehow, but I had no idea what I wanted to do,” he said.
When the executive director position opened up at Agape House in 2002, he got the job and never looked back.
Right off the bat, the board presented him with a challenge: relocate Agape House to a new facility on West Harper Road, where the organization still stands today.
“I came from a business background, so I had the business side of it, but I didn’t really know how nonprofits worked,” Hughes said. “I didn’t know how to fundraise.”
But by the end of 2005, the move had been made, and Hughes was in full motion. Under his leadership, the nonprofit has operated a thrift store, conducted name-your-price rummage sales of household wares, sent thousands of bags full of food home with hungry children in the area through the Backpack Program, operated the local food bank and opened a shelter for families in 2011 known Martha’s House.
“By the time we started that project I had more community contacts, more fundraising expertise,” Hughes said.
The idea for the shelter— which houses drug-free families for months at a time while they recuperate from financial stress and gain budgeting skills— came from the late Bob Severson, a former Hermiston mayor who saw a woman and her children on the street in Hermiston during one especially cold winter.
“This community did not have any safety net for people in that condition,” Hughes said.
He said the project is evidence that one person’s ideas can change a community. For him, Martha’s House is also a good example of how focusing on one element of an issue can bring tangible results.
“We saw the homeless population was made up of many factors,” he said. “There’s not one answer that’s going to solve homelessness, there are five or six populations that need unique answers. We chose families and helping them move back into society.”
Hughes said right now, the house is seeing at least an application a day. He said they probably won’t be able to accept any more tenants unless they hire someone to be on-site full time.
“There is a large need for services, and there are many areas that are not being met yet. Whoever follows me will have an option to tackle some of those issues,” Hughes said.
Namely, Hughes said, the Hermiston area lacks resources for those suffering from drug addiction and mental illness.
Cathy Putnam, who’s been on the Agape House board of directors, will be the interim executive director while the nonprofit considers its next steps.
“What we’re looking for is someone who can look at the program from an outside perspective, and see what resources we have,” said board president, Daniel Wattenburger, in August. “How can we continue to meet the needs we meet now, and what needs aren’t we meeting that the Agape House can play a role in?”
It’s somewhat of a tricky question. Agape House provides services like no other in the city of Hermiston, but the organization’s budget has been slimming over the years, with a slight uptick in revenue during the 2018 tax year. Agape House is funded almost entirely by community donations, Hughes said. It means that the organization’s ability to help can ebb and flow, which is something he’s experienced himself.
“For pretty much the past 10 years, I have worked without a salary,” Hughes said.
Hughes instead has received some payments as well as housing and transportation. But as Agape House searches for a new director, he said they’re planning to make it a paid position.
Hughes knows it’s going to take someone with fierce dedication to the community to take his place.
“They’ll have to put God first, community second and ego last,” he said. “Whoever follows me will bring a different look. We don’t know all the areas where we lack services, I hope that through this transition we shine some light in those areas.”
Wattenburger said that one of the key changes that might affect Agape House’s goals over time is growth within the city.
“The biggest thing is that Hermiston has grown. With the addition of Martha’s House, not just food and clothing but housing as well. We’re hoping for someone who has experience in that realm,” Wattenburger said.
And while Agape House takes a moment to consider its next steps, Dave and Jodene have recently decided on theirs.
On Halloween night, they’re moving to Arizona in an RV to help bring a local artist’s dream of building an educational mini-golf course to life.
“We’d not planned to leave the area,” Dave said. “But God opened up a unique opportunity for us.”
Jodene will help advertise and create a website for the project, and Dave will be helping execute the construction of the plan.
“I’m not ready to just sit down and do nothing. This will bring some of the skills that I’ve learned here to use,” he said.
When he looks back, Dave said he feels proud to have helped expand Agape House’s scope of services.
“I think I’ve made a dent,” he said.