Friendship Center celebrates 10 years

Friends of the Carpenter also honors its many volunteers

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian arts & features reporter



Friends of the Carpenter Friendship Center 10th anniversary

• What: A day center and woodshop for homeless people. Supported by volunteers, donations and the 2nd Chance Thrift Store at 3414-A N.E. 52nd St. in Vancouver.

• Founded: By the Rev. Duane Sich in 1998 in his home garage.

• Current location: A major donation leveraged the 2004 purchase of an 18,000-square-foot warehouse at 1600 W. 20th St. in Vancouver.

• Executive director: Tom Iberle.

• 2013 budget: $504,502 in income and $458,185 in expenses.

• Information: friendsofthecarpe... or 360-750-4752.

• Next event: Free Music in May concert at 11:30 a.m. May 10 at the Friendship Center.

A decade ago, Friends of the Carpenter was homeless.

"When you're homeless and don't have a secure place, it's really hard to make headway," said the Rev. Duane Sich.

Sich first launched the homeless day center and woodworking shop in his own garage in the Lincoln neighborhood in the late 1990s. That worked OK, although it inevitably meant a steady stream of people all through the house.

During Wednesday night's 10th anniversary celebration of the Friendship Center that now houses the program and volunteer appreciation event, Sich thanked his wife, Julie, for her tolerance and for facilitating what he called his "teeny little idea."

That idea was a homeless ministry that went beyond doling out charity to strangers and sending them on their way — still strangers. Sich said he always felt that such "get-and-go" interactions never truly crossed any boundaries. They left people — homeless visitors and churchgoers — feeling awkward, distrustful, just as separate as ever.

"Anything I might give you today might change your day, but won't change your life," is how he said he felt. "Charity helps you out, but it doesn't help you in."

His solution: a place where homeless visitors and volunteers would simply be friends who came together, worked together, prayed together. "We wanted real people … who are really there to show they care," he said.

The woodshop that got going in his home garage caught on and eventually went hunting for bigger space. Sich recounted Friends of the Carpenter's long journey though this borrowed room and that basement, this leftover office and that out-of-the-way warehouse.

Eventually Jack and Jane Artz, Sich's longtime friends, came through with a $500,000 donation that leveraged the purchase of a spacious warehouse just west of downtown Vancouver. It was volunteers who did the laborious cleanup of what had been a fiberglass plant, he said, and volunteers who have sustained the place — and his vision — ever since.

"Volunteers are really what this place is all about. Always has been, always will be," Sich said.

The Artzes are both gone now, but their daughter, Cher Darley, was on hand for the celebration. She said her father was a carpenter who "really believed in what Duane was doing and really wanted to invest in it. He was here all the time talking to people."

On any typical day at the 18,000-square-foot Friendship Center, Sich pointed out, there may be dozens of people working and visiting together — and you really can't tell who's a volunteer and who's a homeless person. They're all just friends for the day, he said. That really is the point of the place.

"Woodworking is just the eye candy," Sich said of the small and large wood products — crucifixes and fish symbols, picture frames and furniture — the place turns out to help sustain itself. "It's not about the wood and it's not about the working."

Sich, who handed the leadership of Friends of the Carpenter to Tom Iberle earlier this year, happily displayed his little yellow name tag that used to say "executive director" and now says "woodworker volunteer."

"This wasn't my idea," Sich said, surveying the room full of friends, decorations, woodworking equipment — and a decade of ministry. "It's way beyond anything I had in mind."