Former resident of Share shelter in Orchards repays kindness

Effort provides financial support, resources to local agencies

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

Open the door to room No. 4, and you’re met with fresh paint and colorful curtains, a comfy shag area rug, quilted bedspreads, new lamps, dressers and end tables, and some cheerful hand-drawn artwork on the walls.

All of which was facilitated by Sonja McKenzie, 44, who lived in this room last year with her four young children. At that time, the place reportedly looked less like a modest motel room and more like a cell. No paint, no curtains, no carpet or tables -- just a couple of beds and a bare light bulb.

The Share Orchards Inn needed help — and so did McKenzie, who’d taken the kids and fled an abusive, alcoholic partner. She and the children couch surfed with friends in Portland who were so loyal, they just handed over copies of their house keys; eventually McKenzie pieced together a couple of grants, one for displaced homemakers and one for housing assistance, along with a barely paying, temporary AmeriCorps position at Oregon Health and Science University.

To help score that job, McKenzie turned to Dress for Success, a nonprofit organization that provides career-development coaching and business clothing to low-income women. Dress for Success was so impressed with McKenzie,

it sent her to professional women’s conferences and to a national meeting in Dallas, Texas.

Despite her successes, McKenzie’s grant assistance petered out. With housing and job disappearing, McKenzie and her children came across the river for help. They moved into the Share Orchards Inn in May 2011.

“It was a refuge for us,” she said. “We had our own space and the staff was amazing. After all the stress of losing our house and having to move, it was a time of respite.”

But not a long time. McKenzie made good use of Share’s case management to build a new life plan, and in just two months the family moved to an apartment in Gresham. Dress for Success helped with first month’s rent and utilities. McKenzie now works as an admissions advisor for American Intercontinental University, an online school. And she’s applying to graduate school.

Sharing with Share

Dress for Success, meanwhile, was tasking McKenzie with a community action project. And McKenzie, mindful of the circle of friends who’d formed an informal safety net for her family, turned her attention back to Share. The agency was facing public budget cuts amid growing need, she knew — and much of that need is not chronically homeless people but working families, just like hers, who’ve fallen behind during the Great Recession.

“Sonja is that type of client who’s been pretty rare over Share’s history — until the past two or three years,” said Share spokeswoman Jessica Lightheart. “The type of person who’s always been working, who’s always had a house. And all it took was one hiccup for her to become homeless. A lot of people are suddenly facing that. ‘What are we going to do? We’ve never faced anything like this before.’”

The Circle of Friends Community Action Project was born. It will provide financial support and resources to local shelters. The Portlandia Club, a professional women’s group, provided $1,000 in seed money, and Walmart, a Dress for Success partner, provided $500. There was another $4,000 in donated materials and services.

All of which more than covered the upgrade of room No. 4 at the Share Orchards Inn. Another chunk of cash and donations will accomplish a similar upgrade at the Bradley Angle domestic violence shelter in Portland.

Circle of Friends has teamed up with a nonprofit-development group called GivSmart, which supplies Value Village thrift stores, to raise money toward these efforts and grow in the future. McKenzie wants to amass enough money to continue with improvements at both shelters. The Share Orchards Inn has 11 family rooms sleeping up to six each, plus one room that can accommodate four single women.

She’s also hoping to parlay her organizational efforts into a livelihood for herself, guiding her own bona fide nonprofit agency. “There’s plenty of room for this to grow. There’s so much need out there,” she said.

But for now, the Circle of Friends Community Action Project has a definite end date. It’s Friday, May 25, and you are welcome to help out through then. Call GivSmart at 888-659-8333 or go to the website at GivSmart to arrange for donated items to be picked up. Be sure to label your donation “Circle of Friends Project.” Or, if you want to donate money, call Paula Moore at Dress for Success in Portland, 503-249-7300.

McKenzie put up the finishing touches on Room No. 4 last Friday morning: a framed photo of her four children, ages seven through 11, at Long Beach last year. The kids have come through the last few tough years with flying colors, McKenzie said, and in recent weeks they enthusiastically pitched in with the remodel of their former home.

“It’s hard for me to look at that picture without crying,” McKenize said, “because that is our favorite place in the world and they are the greatest kids in the world.”

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.