Friday, December 2, 2011

Nonprofit Partner Spotlight: Children's Book Bank

There is an old Ukrainian folktale where a puckish young lad loses a mitten in the forest. While the boy blissfully romps about the snowy woods, a mouse takes refuge from the cold in the boy’s wooly mitten. One by one, different forest creatures emerge from the chilly forest and insinuate themselves into the ever-expanding mitten. The over crowded mitten finally bursts and the animals are again left to fend for themselves in winter’s bitter chill.

At its core, The Mitten is a story about the difficulty of sharing limited resources.

Even in this digital age, books are everywhere we turn, and for many of the fortunate among us, tales like The Mitten line the seemingly endless shelves of bookstores. But in neighborhoods that live in poverty, books are few and far between with one book for every three hundred children. That is one book passing from one pair of eager little hands to the next until, like the fabled mitten, only shreds remain.

Enter the Children’s Book Bank, a three-year old non-profit organization committed to putting books into the hands of children before they hit kindergarten. At no charge, the CBB collects, repairs, packages and distributes used books to needy families. A few times a week, a dozen Hands On Greater Portland volunteers gather at the CBB in northeast Portland for book cleaning parties.

This evening, former Hands On Volunteer Robin Anderson, now the CBB’s operations manager works alongside Hands On Greater Portland volunteer leader Ben Pike to help make old books new again for young children in need. But before the work begins, the volunteers briefly introduce themselves and name their favorite children’s book. That quick round robin makes clear just how ingrained the works of Theodore Geisel, Shel Silverstein and Margaret Wise-Brown are in the American consciousness.

“Most people here bond through books, so naming your favorite kid’s book is a perfect way to break the ice before getting to work,” says Anderson, a library and information sciences graduate from the University of Wisconsin.

The sorting room at the Children’s Book Bank feels less like a bank, and more like Santa’s workshop. A large group of tables is gathered toward the center of the room displaying the tools of the trade: scissors, stickers, tape, spray bottles, dust cloths, rubbing alcohol and enormous bottles of Goo Gone stain remover.  The perimeter of the room is lined wall to wall with every sort of child’s book crowding the shelves. Books are sorted and stacked into towering boxes filled with chapeau-donning cats, curious monkeys and rabbits bidding the moon adieu.

Anderson isn’t kidding when she says most of the cleaning session volunteers bond through books. Without the spray bottles and scissors, the group could be mistaken for an impromptu literary society.

“None of us are shy when it comes to showing our passion for books,” says volunteer Sandy Axel, a Buffalo, N.Y., native, and self-described “empty nester” who has lived in the Portland area for 25 years. Axel now volunteers sorting and stacking books for the CBB, but got her start with CBB at the cleaning parties. “It’s definitely more fun when different generations get to talking about what they read as children.”

Anderson says cleaning party volunteers are typically come from pretty diverse group ages and backgrounds. She adds that it’s also common for entire groups to volunteer en masse for a cleaning session, “Scout troops, a class of middle schoolers, even some birthday parties show up.”

The Children’s Book Bank with the help of Hands On Volunteers have made strides toward closing the gap on that grim one-for-300 statistic. The CBB delivers 300 to 500 backpacks to needy kids each month. Each backpack is stuffed with 16 books ranging from picture books to early chapter books. In 2010 the CBB delivered nearly 52,000 picture books to needy kids, many of them Headstart preschoolers.

That’s tens of thousands of books that might see a landfill or get boxed away in an attic, landing in a child’s hands instead. Hands On Greater Portland volunteers play a big role in that effort, comprising over 25% of the CBB’s volunteer base.

“The passion for stories and reading begins before kids are three years old. You have to get children started early. Getting those first books to kids in kindergarten is just too late.” Says volunteer Jeannie Fagnan. Fagnan got her start at the CBB as a Hands On volunteer, and has her M.A. in education specializing in children’s literature.

“It’s not just a love of reading that a book can open up to a kid,” adds Fagnan, “some of these books have fantastic illustrations that can introduce a child to the world of art.”

“Portland is a big city, the quality of some of the books we receive are amazing,” says Fagnan, “There simply is no reason those books shouldn’t be in a kid’s hands.”

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Volunteer Leader Profile: Dannon Raith

The Hands On Greater Portland volunteers buzz about the lobby of Portland’s First United Methodist Church as trilling woodwinds, plucked strings and sonorous horns echo from the church’s stunning wood-paneled, stained-glass sanctuary.

A few times a month, arts-loving Hands On volunteers help the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra prepare for concerts. Tonight before 400 plus enthusiastic arts lovers, the orchestra plays selections of Elgar, Mahler and Sibelius in a show called “Autumnal Reflections.”

Hands On volunteer leader Dannon Raith, 31, checks tickets and hands out programs at the entrance of the sanctuary while eager concert goers file in with tickets in hand. The other volunteers sell refreshments or guide concertgoers to will call and a pre-concert auction toward the back of the lobby.

We talked with Raith, a Milwaukee, Wisconsin native, about volunteering with Hands On Greater Portland, and how he came to be a volunteer leader for the Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra.

Hands On Greater Portland: So, what brought you west?

Dannon Raith:

My brother has lived in Portland since I was eleven years old. I originally moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2009 to found a media company in Tacoma. After my partner relocated to Washington D.C., I moved to Portland to be near family. I’ve always had a fondness for Portland, and I love it more every day.

Hands On:

What drew you to volunteerism?


Since college I’ve always maintained a level of community involvement being involved in student government, founding a film club and managing a film festival. It was through my work in Tacoma that one of our clients had a mission of creating positive, meaningful change through social entrepreneurship. It put me in touch with hundreds of non-profit, socially minded businesses and organizations, and it shifted my interest toward the non-profit sector.

Hands On: How did you hook up with Hands On Greater Portland?


Google. I had been researching ways to become involved in my community. Hands On was an excellent resource because it allowed me to work with and get to know many different non-profit organizations in Portland. Through Hands On I’ve worked with the Partnership for Safety and Justice, SCRAP (an organization focused on the environment and sustainability) and JOIN (an organization focused on transitioning the homeless to permanent housing), to name a few.

Hands On:

What drew you to volunteering for the orchestra?


Free symphony tickets! I’ve always enjoyed going to the symphony. I love that a large number of musicians work in concert to bring to life something that was written many years ago. It’s kind of magical if you think about it. I’ve attended quite a few Columbia Symphony performances and I always come away impressed with the level of musicianship and professionalism. They’re often performing more obscure pieces, pieces one rarely gets the chance to hear, and because they are a non-profit, they’re able to keep their ticket prices affordable. It’s one of the pleasures I get from volunteering, knowing that I’m directly part of keeping this kind of experience affordable to the community.

Hands On:

How long do you see yourself volunteering?


I think involvement in ones’ community is something we all yearn for in one way or another. It’s human nature to pitch in for the good of some larger cause, to work. I am certain I will volunteer for things in my community for the rest of my life, and as long as I’m in Portland, I will continue to volunteer through Hands On.

Hands On Greater Portland offers a huge diversity of volunteer opportunities. You can help advocate for a prisoner’s rights by volunteering for the Partnership for Safety& Justice, or help make our community sustainable by rescuing art supplies from the landfill with SCRAP, or help a homeless person get off the street and into a home through JOIN. Search for hundreds of volunteer opportunities at

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Project Spotlight: Get Artsy With Refugee Kids

They swirl around the courtyard kicking soccer balls or playing an impromptu game of tag. Kids immersed in the graceful art of play. Every minute or so one of them peels away from the group to peer through the glass doors, and as the clock nears 4:30, more and more of them gather at the doors. They spy through the glass, with little hands shielding glinting eyes to take in the tubs of art supplies.

In conjunction with Catholic Charities, every Friday afternoon a dozen Hands On Greater Portland volunteers meet at Kateri Park in Southeast Portland. They help focus the boundless energy of young refugee children on creative art projects.

“These kids are a lot like any kids you might meet,” Elisabeth Gern, Kateri Park's Resident Services Coordinator, says glancing and smiling toward the door, “and then again, they are totally different.”

Most of the children here are sons and daughters of Somali refugees, born here, but still walking the cultural tightrope between maintaining homeland traditions while assimilating into American schools.  Some of the girls wear colorful hijabs, the traditional headscarves of the Muslim faith.

It’s 4:30 and the doors fly open, the children rush to take their seats next to the adults.  A few of them settle next to New Jersey native and returning Portlander, Annie Tabachnick. Tabachnick, 25, recently moved back from Chicago after getting her M.A. in Art Therapy, and to her this weekly Hands On opportunity was a perfect fit. Still, she noticed right away how “Get Artsy with Refugee Kids!” went beyond just the “artsy” part of that title.

“It was pretty wild, the first time I got to just play with the kids, instead of doing art therapy with them,” says Tabachnick, “They sure have a lot of energy and really seem to enjoy having the volunteers there. It felt good to have some good old-fashioned play.”

In less than an hour Tabachnick and her group of kids have completed their art project, fashioning construction paper into colorful fish and turning pencils, string and paper clips into a fishing pole. In fact, Tabachnick’s group has gone one better, creating a little undersea world complete with seaweed and other sea creatures.

The kids punch holes in the fish with the intent of catching them with their pencil poles and paper clip hooks.

“I’ll do this as long as I can,” says Tabachnick who has been involved in Get Artsy with Refugee Kids for several weeks, “It gets better each time and I love getting to know the kids, and they really seem to enjoy getting to know the volunteers.”

A little hand carefully lowers her line into the imaginary briny deep, shifting her pole around the fish she has made. Gently, she nudges the hook into the fish.

A smile breaks across her face. She’s got a bite.

--Michael Halstead
Volunteer Storyteller, Hands On Greater Portland

See the wonder of Kateri Park for yourself. Sign up for a project today!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Bank of America selects Hands On Greater Portland for its prestigious Neighborhood Excellence Initiative

Hands On Greater Portland is excited to receive recognition as part of Bank of America’s Neighborhood Excellence Initiative, which recognizes, nurtures, and rewards community-based organizations, local heroes and student leaders working to improve their communities.  Bank of America has named Hands On Greater Portland a 2010 Portland Neighborhood Builder, the nonprofit category of the Neighborhood Excellence Initiative.  The bank is awarding Hands On $200,000 over the next two years as part of the initiative as well as the opportunity to participate in a Bank of America Leadership Program.

Bank of America’s support will help Hands On respond to record numbers of volunteers at a time when nonprofits are looking for additional volunteer support.  Hands On Greater Portland is at the center of volunteering in the region, making 24,000 connections a year between volunteers and opportunities to serve with more than 400 nonprofits, schools and community organizations.

Bank of America’s funding is part of an ongoing effort to stimulate economic vitality in Portland and in communities across the nation. The bank has made a $3.15 million investment in the Portland region since 2004 through the NEI program alone.

In addition to Hands On Greater Portland, Proud Ground was also named a Neighborhood Builder by Bank of America.  Proud Ground  is a nonprofit that creates more affordable homeownership opportunities in Portland.

Update: The Oregonian recently published an article about the funding.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Cookies From The Heart

It’s a well known fact that food prepared with love tastes better.  And sometimes it takes a child to remind us of that.  This juicy remembrance came back to us during one of our Boomer Affinity Group meetings at Hands On. Once monthly a group of volunteers meets at Hands On to share our volunteer experiences and to deepen our understanding of community service. And this particular month we each thought back to our childhood passions, recalling what we most adored doing with our time. One of us loved to bake, another entertained her parents with her short stories, and yet another loved artistic expression. It was a synergistic moment as these tales converged into an exquisite opportunity to give back to others in the year 2010 in Portland, Oregon.

On a Sunday afternoon, many of our Affinity Group members gathered in a kitchen giving rise to 240 home baked cookies, yes that’s 20 dozen! Six cookies were lovingly packed into each decorated bag with a written note expressing care and good wishes.  Their childhood passions for baking, writing and art converged with their willingness to give back. Then on Friday evening, one of the cookie bakers packed these 40 bags of sweets into her car and delivered them to the homeless at Operation Night Watch. She unloaded the goods and before returning from parking her car, the prizes were claimed and consumed. These homeless adults, hungry for many things, grew back into the eager children who know that food prepared with love tastes better.

Karen Beal
Community Engagement Affinity Group Facilitator

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Year of Volunteer

By Krista Collins

It’s 5:30 am.  My alarm clock goes off.  I turn it off in a groggy, half-awaked state. Rolling out of bed, I fumble around to find a half-decent pair of jeans and a t-shirt, slap on a pair of tennis shoes and make my way towards the bus stop. For the next few hours, my Saturday morning will be spent at Cathedral Park, lending a hand for one of Ethiopia Project's 5-10k run events. Stopwatch in hand, I shout out times to the recorder as the runners cross the finish line. They then toss their shoes to the side, which will later be cleaned and sorted for donation to aspiring athletes in Ethiopia.

The weekend after that, I found myself on a camping trip teaching young girls survivor skills at Silver Falls State Park. I became well-cultured in the current media fascinations of 10-year old girls and also learned how to make an awesome cherry cobbler with cake mix, a can of Sprite and a cast-iron skillet. I then spent the next weekend obliterating poor unsuspecting archaic printers to harvest the parts for donation at Free Geek, a local non-profit focused on building computers for those who wouldn’t be able to afford them otherwise.

This was a typical month of my life throughout 2009.

As a personal resolution and a goal to best put into practice the idea of compassion with a focus on giving back, I created a goal for myself to participate in at least one volunteer project each week, for the duration of a year. This came to a total of 54 projects, most of which I signed up to attend through Hands On Greater Portland.

My evenings and weekends became hectic, as I jaunted from one end of the city to the other. Some projects fell admittedly more on the enjoyable side, such as helping out at auctions and banquets (thus receiving delicious free food afterwards). Some projects, on the other hand, involved cleaning toilets or standing out in 18 degree weather to sell Christmas trees. With no hat.

Along the way, though, I met a lot of fascinating and somewhat quirky individuals. There was, for instance, the elderly war veteran that schooled me on the correct usage of a mop while I was cleaning up O’Bryant Square during Potluck in the Park, one of Portland’s largest outside meal services.

“You see,” he started, “When I was stationed on the U.S.S Missoura’, I was in charge of moppin’ the deck. The trick is to make the mop work for YOU!” He swayed the mop back and forth, and I still use his technique--it really works!

Then there were the discussions with other volunteers, such as the chat I had with my brochure partner at Mt. Tabor’s 100th Anniversary. A woman in her sixties, she had traveled all over the United States and had even lived in France for a few years, her children receiving a cross-cultural experience as well as becoming fluent in both English and French. While she and I greeted visitors, I mentioned to her how I was lamenting the fact that I was in my mid-twenties, with no husband or children on the immediate horizon and how much I fretted over  the “freedom” I would have to give up when the time came.

"Don't worry about it" she said. "You're never too old to experience things. Look at the life I've lived, and look at the life I'm living now. My husband and I have a roadtrip planned this summer across the states; you never lose the chance to enjoy life at any age."

Some of my experiences also personified the thin line that often exists between financial security and homelessness. While I plopped a serving of spaghetti onto a plate one night at the Union Gospel Mission, one of the guests opened up to me about his current hardships. He was clean-cut, mentally sound and friendly in personality, with many of his belongings packed away into a local storage shed; he carried his daily necessities with him in his backpack. The job he had that provided him with income and secured housing had fallen through, so he was now homeless and taking refuge in shelters. He cried and shook my hand, thanking me for simply putting some donated food on his plate. To me it wasn’t a big deal, but to him it was a noted act of kindness and a free meal for which he was very thankful.

There are many other stories I could tell while I followed through on my resolution; it was truly a rich and rewarding experience, to the point that one article could never summarize adequately the personal growth I gained from this. Volunteering has now become a regular part of my life, and has helped me to appreciate the simplest of tasks as well as to broaden horizons when meeting those that live outside my typical realm of interaction. I have even become a Volunteer Leader for Hands On Greater Portland. I encourage anyone who is interested in exploring new personal avenues to give volunteering a try. You never know who you’ll meet or what stories you’ll come away with.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

World Class Volunteer Knitter

Volunteer. Volunteer Leader. Hands On liaison. World Class Knitter! Douglas has been volunteering monthly with Knit for Newborns for the past two and a half years. At Knit for Newborns volunteers get together to share knitting patterns, help new knitters learn the ropes, and donate the items they have been working on throughout the course of the month. The donations go to Virginia Garcia Health Center, a low income clinic, for newborn babies. Volunteers knit an array of items including blankets, onesies, mittens, socks, sweaters, and dresses. Volunteers” ooo and ahhh” over each other’s donations and look forward to the next time they meet to share their newly crafted items.

I met Douglas when he was working at an event representing Hands On. It was a pretty low key event which can be frustrating on a Saturday morning. However Douglas seized the opportunity and stood in front of the Hands On table ready to engage with event goers and of course…knitting. Douglas is one of our Hands On leaders, our voice in the community, who shows incredible support for our projects through his quiet leadership, enthusiasm, and dedication.

--Robyn Hoppes