While driving along Highway 395, my partner and I noticed something different about Hermiston’s welcome sign recently. For one, it’s adorned with a brightly colored watermelon, and I am all about that. But right next to that sign, there’s a smaller one. It’s faded, but it reads “Welcome. We are building an inclusive community.” I’m taking a picture of it with me to Portland, where I’m moving back to after an incredible and eye-opening nine months in Eastern Oregon.

Now, I’m on the “Whats Happening Hermiston” Facebook page, so don’t get me wrong. I know that not everyone is privy to the inclusive community message. I’ve seen people make racist and sexist comments from behind the safety of their computers. Those people should drive to Stanfield, turn themselves around and go read that welcome sign again.

But that Facebook group doesn’t represent my real-life Hermiston experience and as I pack my bags, I’m anxious to return for swimming at Warehouse Beach, and for the smell of sage cooking in the summer sunshine. This place is special, and while I want to say it’s because of the cute baby cows and totally wild tumbleweeds, I know it’s because of the people.

Folks here can be extraordinarily welcoming, just like that sign suggests. In my years of interviewing people for articles, never have I been met with such honesty as I have in Hermiston. When I knock on doors for stories — palms sweating in anticipation of an irritated homeowner — people just let me inside with a smile. They tell me their life experiences and they’re frank about their hardships. I hope to find that level of integrity everywhere I go.

I think this past New Years Eve, I had the greatest snapshot of what it feels like to be part of a smaller — albeit growing — community. It felt like everyone I’d seen around town was crammed into the Festival Street, gazing up at the sky with utter joy as firework ashes rained upon us. That there was a hand-crafted papier-mâché watermelon involved in the celebrations made me feel really humbled to be part of this community, like I was in on a really juicy and sweet secret even if it was for a short time in the grand scheme of things.

Here, I see young people from diverse backgrounds stepping into leadership roles. I see restaurant workers, full-time parents and everyone in between sacrificing personal time and sleep to keep vital aspects of the community rolling at the Hermiston Warming Station, at Agape House and other organizations that work to support the people who need it most. And what’s more, I’ve never heard anyone here complain about feeling tired, through thick and thin.

To the humans of Hermiston, please don’t be afraid to take a nap to reward yourselves for everything you do. Thank you all for accepting me into your community and for patiently explaining aspects of rural life that I didn’t quite understand. Thank you for giving me a chance to actually see stars in the night sky, to eat extraordinary produce and to tell your stories to the best of my ability inside the very pages of the Hermiston Herald.

Jessica Pollard is a former reporter for the Hermiston Herald.

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