Light a Fire

The Givers

In a philanthropic city, some charities stand out. Meet the winners of our 2008 Light A Fire awards.

By Martha Calhoon and Stacey Wilson May 19, 2009 Published in the November 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

Don Fiser

Winner: Extraordinary Volunteer

The room is filled with families waiting for 35-pound boxes of food to emerge on a conveyor belt at Portland’s Sunshine Division, the 85-year-old food relief organization that was once a branch of the Portland Police Bureau. What the families may not know is that almost every box that goes out the door was carefully filled by one set of hands.

Don Fiser began packing food boxes for Sunshine Division 10 years ago after retiring from Portland Community College, where he had worked for 30 years, most recently as vice president of enrollment. “They calculated that I have packed about 50,000 boxes,” says the 68-year-old volunteer. Fiser has come in four afternoons a week for the past decade, and can easily demonstrate how he makes sure each box is nutritionally balanced before it goes out (some 400 needy families receive boxes each month). “While I’m packing these boxes, I just think about how someone is going to be thrilled to take them home, open them up, and see what’s inside,” he says. “That’s the biggest reward for me.”

‘In this economy … it has come down to paying the rent or having enough food.’

Though Fiser has long been the only volunteer box-stocker in Sunshine’s warehouse, this year he had to bring on a few helpers to meet a rise in demand for emergency relief. He points out that most of Sunshine’s clients are employed full time, contrary to stereotypes about the poor. “In this economy, for a lot of people it has come down to paying the rent or having enough food,” he says. “That’s what we’re here for.” —MC Contact: 503-823-2119; 

Children’s Healing Art Project (CHAP)

Winner: Keeping Us Healthy
Awarded to an organization that helps us take care of ourselves.

Touring CHAP’s Pearl District offices is a walk through a colorful mélange of jewelry, foam-rubber masks, finger paintings, and hand-knotted Nepalese rugs emblazoned with designs, all made by Portland kids. “You should see this place during our Art Club sessions,” executive director Frank Etxaniz says, referring to the monthly events CHAP hosts for kids who are well enough to attend. “It’s wonderful chaos.”

Etxaniz, a painter and a former design consultant for New York’s Museum of Modern Art, launched CHAP in 2005 to provide art programs for children who have had to be treated at local hospitals, whether for a terminal illness or simply a broken arm. The artist could have been a kindergartner recovering from a second liver transplant or a girl born without arms. Whereas they once made only masks, the children now also paint, sculpt, and create paper flowers and greeting cards. The program reaches about 10,000 kids and their parents each year.

This month, CHAP kicks off its annual Holiday “Bizarre,” a fundraising public art factory at 937 NW Glisan St. From November 28 to December 24, the factory will showcase and auction CHAP creations (including a kiteboard coffee table and a lotus-flower sculpture adorned with 6,000 beads). Make your own masterpiece alongside these young artists.—SW Contact: 503-243-5294;

‘Our students leave with a confidence they never knew they had.’

Adelante Mujeres

Winner: Most with the Least
Awarded to an organization doing big things with minimal resources.

“‘I am teacher. You are student.’

Class, what is missing from this sentence?” teacher Dave Pero asks the 10 women sitting at a wobbly table in St. Anthony’s Catholic Church near downtown Forest Grove. The students, most of whom are from Mexico and are in their 20s to 40s, study the dry-erase board. From the back of the room a soft voice finally offers an answer: “The?”

“That’s right!” says Pero. “‘I am the teacher. You are the student.’ Nicely done.”

At first, this class may seem like any other English language course, but in fact it’s just one facet of the services that Adelante Mujeres (Spanish for “women move forward”) provides for immigrant women and their families in this rural Washington County community. Latinas who commit to Adelante’s yearlong curriculum also have access to classes and workshops on parenting, self-esteem, entrepreneurship, leadership, and empowerment.

It’s this last subject that Adelante’s executive director, Bridget Cooke, says is the most life-altering for the group’s clients. “Our students leave with confidence they never knew they had,” Cooke says. “They realize they don’t have to clean houses or wash dishes for the rest of their lives. We open up a world of possibilities for them.”

Adelante’s graduates have gone on to receive GEDs and start businesses (many now sell organic produce at Forest Grove’s weekly farmers market), but the organization’s ability to meet all of its goals almost wholly on donated time and limited resources may be its most impressive accomplishment. Last year, 78 volunteers logged 2,000 hours, and 82 percent of the annual budget now comes from grants. The dedicated crew of 90 or so teachers, staff, and volunteers prove that no hay limites—there are no limits—to the differences each of us can make.—SW Contact: 503-992-0078; 

Kids on the Block

Winner: Having Fun
Awarded to an organization that encourages play.

Two little girls are sharing their feelings about divorce, and an audience of about 20 children is transfixed, too engrossed to care about—or to notice—the black-clad humans attached to each speaker. One eager young critic even rushes up to a human performer after the show to say, “You just missed the most amazing puppet show!”

Moments like these are typical for the 100 or so volunteers who each donate 10 hours per month to bring Kids on the Block Awareness Program’s “powerful puppetry” to Portland-area schoolkids. Last year alone, 70,000 first- through fifth-graders in Multnomah, Clackamas, Clark, and Washington Counties watched more than 550 shows on more than a dozen topics ranging from healthy eating to drug use to sexual abuse. (Schools don’t pay a dime for the performances.)

‘I’ve … never seen children as open as they are during our performances.’

Lynette Jelinek, the program’s director, says that for every moment of sweetness there are others that make teachers’ hearts ache. “I have seen children reveal to the puppets that they’ve been sexually abused, and their teachers are standing there, speechless,” Jelinek says. “I’ve been a counselor for at-risk kids for 20 years and have never seen children as open as they are during our performances.”

There are more than a thousand independent branches of Kids on the Block nationwide, but Portland’s, now in its 22nd year, is the largest. Jelinek says interest in volunteering has spiked (many puppeteers are young adults who watched shows themselves as kids), as has the number of children who reveal they need help. “If we reach just one child per show,” Jelinek says, “then we are more than fulfilling our mission.” —SW Contact: 503-736-3200; 

Ride Connection

Winner: Honoring Our Elders
Awarded to an organization that serves and celebrates the oldest and wisest people in our community.

Few cities have received more accolades for their innovative public transportation systems than Portland. Yet thousands of our citizens cannot easily access the buses, trains, and streetcars that many of us use on a daily basis—for example, the 85-year-old living in North Portland who’s never used TriMet and has a doctor’s appointment in West Linn; the longtime bus rider who discovers at age 78 that his sight is failing and he can no longer navigate his weekend errands; or someone like Evelyn Riggs, a 90-year-old Gresham woman who lives alone and volunteers at a senior center every weekday morning, but has no one to drive her there.

‘We all deserve access to quality transportation, regardless of age or … where we live.’

For the past 20 years, Ride Connection has provided free transportation to seniors like Riggs. Between 1998 and 2007, the number of rides grew from 11,000 to more than 371,000. With 100 buses and vans, and a team of staff and volunteers, Ride Connection plucks seniors from their isolation, connects them with friends and family, assures them access to medical care, and even allows them simple pleasures such as getting their hair done on a Saturday afternoon.

James Uyeda, the organization’s development manager, says that as more seniors stop driving or taking the bus, Ride Connection’s role becomes more vital: “We all deserve access to quality transportation, regardless of age or health or where we live.” —SW Contact: 503-528-1720; 

Julie McMurchie

Winner: Extraordinary Board Member Over 35

Julie McMurchie still gets choked up when she talks about the day, in 2001, when her mother died, even though she has been telling the story of that sunny January afternoon to people across the country for the past seven years. “We played music and read poetry … Then she took the medicine and fell asleep in five minutes, with all her children around her. Who wouldn’t want that?”

McMurchie’s mother, bedridden with lung cancer, was a client of Compassion & Choices of Oregon, an organization aimed at helping terminally ill Oregonians with end-of-life decisions—including physician-assisted death, which is legal only in Oregon. Today, McMurchie serves on the Compassion & Choices board of directors in hopes of leading a small revolution in the way Americans think about dying.

‘My goal is for every Oregonian … to know there is a place they can ask questions.’

Although physician-assisted death is legal here under the state’s 1997 Death With Dignity Act, McMurchie feels we have a long way to go in terms of public information and physician acceptance. Many doctors are uncomfortable with the idea of helping patients die, so Compassion & Choices reaches out to them with seminars; the organization also is raising money to expand its public outreach programs. “When someone gets a terminal diagnosis, they are scared and want to know what their options are at the end of life,” McMurchie says. “My goal is for every Oregonian who gets a scary diagnosis to know there is a place they can ask questions, where people will be nonjudgmental.”

In the past three years McMurchie has helped bolster the organization’s annual budget by nearly one-third, and she managed to bring in $77,000 in donations at the last fundraiser (up by $30,000 from the previous year). “This is one of the hardest organizations to raise money for,” says George Eighmey, executive director. “It’s an issue people don’t want to talk about, but having Julie as a public face for this issue in the community has really brought us to the next level of mainstream recognition.” —MC Contact:

Gil Muñoz of Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center

Extraordinary CEO

As Gil Muñoz navigates the halls of Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center on the ground floor of Pacific University’s Health Professions Campus in Hillsboro, he is greeted with “hola” at nearly every turn. “We have a particular niche in terms of reaching out to people with language and cultural barriers to health care access,” he says of the 33-year-old organization he has directed for nearly a decade.

Given the center’s four locations, 31 full-time health providers, on-site dental clinics and pharmacies, and mental health program, it’s hard to believe that this organization once occupied a three-car garage in Cornelius. Under Muñoz’s directorship, Virginia Garcia has grown exponentially; it now provides comprehensive primary care to more than 30,000 low-income patients (90 percent of whom live below the federal poverty level) across Washington and Yamhill Counties.

This public health clinic is at the forefront of medical innovation, having created an early model of a primary care home in which a physician, nurse, case manager, and behavioral health expert work in tandem to address not just patients’ symptoms, but also their overall health. The idea is to help them avoid getting sick in the first place.

Despite the center’s growth, Virginia Garcia’s employees haven’t lost sight of their mission. Last year, Muñoz bought a mobile health clinic to care for the thousands of seasonal farmworkers who come to rural Oregon for the harvest every year.—MC Contact: 503-601-7400;

Kim Filla of MIKE Program

Extraordinary Board Member Under 35

As the director of community programs at Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center: Rosemary Anderson High School, Kim Filla has a pretty full workweek. She teaches teen parenting classes at the North Portland alternative school and oversees student support services and counseling. But when the 34-year-old clinical social worker was asked to join the board of directors for the Multicultural Integrated Kidney Education Program (MIKE) and implement an after-school health education curriculum at Rosemary Anderson, she saw an opportunity to help students improve their health and to empower them as community ambassadors.

“I really didn’t know anything about writing health education curriculum,” Filla says, regarding the program’s emphasis on preventing kidney disease by teaching students about healthy diets and habits, like snacking on fruit instead of junk food and drinking water instead of soda. But drawing on her background in youth development, she crafted a MIKE Program course that would encourage young volunteers to take their own message of healthy living out into the community.

Student-designed projects at Benson and Forest Grove high schools have included peer education outreach at Ockley Green Middle School; a “Kidney Karnival” for National Youth Service Day; and an illustrated book in Spanish and English for elementary school libraries. Now Filla facilitates her school’s program, trains mentors, and oversees efforts to implement the MIKE Program in other schools.

“We’re reaching these kids at a time when their health choices have the greatest chance to effect change in their lives,” Filla says, “but more than that, we really look at how to help them become contributing, whole members of society.” —MC Contact: 503-296-7705;

Native American Youth and Family Center

Winner: Inspiring our Next Generation
Awarded to an organization doing big things for children.

The Native American Youth and Family Center in North Portland serves members of the more than 300 tribes represented in Multnomah County (Portland houses the ninth-largest Native American community in the United States, with 38,000 people). For 34 years, children and families have turned to the family center for education, housing, job training, or simply a welcoming venue in which to celebrate—and perpetuate—their tribes’ rich cultures.—SW Contact: 503-288-8177;

David Murray of Convergence Networks, for Big Brothers/Big Sisters

Winner: Extraordinary Pro-Bono Contribution

When you think of the connection between a child and his Big Brother or Big Sister volunteer, you might not think of the Internet. David Murray is someone who understands the importance of connections not just between fiber-optic cables but also between people. This is part of the reason he and his eight-year-old Portland-based IT firm, Convergence Networks, donated more than $12,000 worth of consulting time to update the infrastructure at the local Big Brothers Big Sisters headquarters—a major contribution to volunteer operations.

“Before, we were all on different versions of Microsoft Word, [and] none of us could access our e-mail or our servers remotely,” says Lynn Thompson, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters Columbia Northwest. “We’ve learned over the years that to retain prospective volunteers, we have to be able to get back to them within 24 hours and get them in for an interview within five days. Without the proper infrastructure in place to respond quickly, we would miss our chance at another volunteer.”

Thanks to the upgrade, Big Brothers Big Sisters expects to meet its goal of serving 6,000 local children by 2011.—MC Contact: 503-249-4859;

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