County charities can depend on volunteers

Funding may be reduced some, but enthusiasm is strong

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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On the first Saturday in December, thousands of people scour the streets of Clark County for food.

They’re not scavengers, of course — they’re volunteers. They haul many tons of donations back to collection sites and then to the Clark County Food Bank, a $4.2 building that went up in late 2011 thanks to countless large and small community donations (in addition to hefty grants from state and federal governments).

The building is new. Walk and Knock, a tradition started by the Vancouver Lions in 1985, is not. The way the exercise has turned into a hallowed Clark County tradition “just boggles your mind,” said the late A.C. “Bud” Pasmore, one of the original masterminds behind Walk and Knock. “It’s grown far beyond anything we ever expected.”

That’s what many charity and nonprofit organizers and officials say about the state of giving in Clark County: Neighbors help neighbors here in truly astonishing fashion.

For example, there’s the grassroots winter effort known as the WHO. That’s not a band of mod rockers — Winter Hospitality Overflow is a couple of Lutheran churches that open their floors up to homeless people who can’t squeeze into shelters as the weather gets nasty, and the many thousands of volunteers who take overnight shifts to keep the operation running.

“It’s an amazing group of volunteers,” said coordinator Kevin Hiebert, including an on-call list that can be tapped when other volunteers fall through. “There are people who say, ‘Hey, just call me at 2 a.m., it doesn’t matter — I’ll be there.’”

Volunteer labor and donated money also drive much of the effort behind Share, the area’s most prominent provider of services to the hungry and homeless. Share operates several shelters and a street outreach effort, maintains approximately 100 local families in private apartments via rent subsidies, serves hot meals every day, and discreetly sends thousands of food packs home with area schoolchildren every weekend — often feeding not just kids but whole families, McWithey said.

“In these troubling times, there are a staggering number of people living one paycheck or one unexpected turn of events away from losing what already is a fragile roof over their heads,” said Diane McWithey, executive director of Share. “And it is an unfortunate fact that families with young children are the fastest-growing segment of our local homeless population. Watching children stand in line for a room, a hot meal or a food box is especially difficult.”

After years of beating the bushes for funds, Share is finally getting ready to open its new headquarters and warehouse: a remodeled bowling alley on Andresen Road in central Vancouver. The new space, which should open this spring, not only adds resources and convenience -- it’ll also free up shelter space in Share House on West 13th Street.

Sharing some of the space will be the Council for the Homeless and its new Housing Solutions Center, a one-stop clearinghouse for housing and other services. This replaces the former Emergency Shelter Clearinghouse, which connected people only with a bed for the night. The new operation means to conduct thorough intake interviews and plug callers into all the services they need to avoid or climb back out of homelesness.

“It’s not just emergency services, it’s permanent solutions,” said Council for the Homeless executive director Andy Silver.

On the hunt for a permanent solution over the past couple of years has been the Arc of Southwest Washington, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2011 as the area’s main advocate for people with disabilities of all sorts -- while facing a budget crunch that threatened to sink the Arc. A round of painful layoffs and program reductions, along with a huge charitable clothing drive, have led back to a stable bottom line, according to board president Justin Myers, who expects 2013 to see the revival of the Arc’s therapeutic PRIDE program for children.

“We’ve been able to put aside money for programs, salaries and our bank account,” Myers said. “We’re saving and paying our bills and growing. Just like our name, no pun intended, we keep moving forward even when times bring you down.”

Posh to modest

From regional foundations like the Murdock Trust and the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington, occupying posh office space and writing big checks, to mom-and-pop do-gooder efforts organized around people’s kitchen tables, Clark County’s nonprofits and charities are soldiering on.

Americans Building Community brings folks together to paint, mend and polish homes in Vancouver’s downscale central neighborhoods. The YWCA offers support to women who are battling sexism and racism and struggling to escape domestic violence.

Empower Up recycles electronics, keeping hazardous waste out of landfills and reselling technology to people who need the discount. The Dream Big Community Center has kicked off a campaign to look after the needs of at-risk teenagers so they can form and follow their dreams.

The Friends of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge wants to keep herons and hawks flying. The Friends of the Vancouver Symphony aims to keep the celebrated local orchestra playing. The Friends and Foundation of the Camas Public Library wants to keep east county’s books moving.

There are hundreds of Clark County charitable and nonprofit organizations registered with the Washington Secretary of State. You can see details at http://secstate.wa.gov/charities.

More than 1,000 agencies in Clark County have tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service — meaning donors can deduct contributions — but don’t have to register with the state because they take in less than $25,000 per year. Organizations whose sole purpose is religious or political also do not have to be registered with the state.