Focus on Youth Finds Joy on Sunflower Farm

Focus on Youth Finds Joy on Sunflower Farm

Portland, OR. The Sunflower Farm, an organic garden hosted by the nonprofit Focus on Youth, has expanded exponentially this summer, despite losing the support of its houseless youth volunteers. Founder Donna Lee Holmes said she was amazed at the willingness of the community to support one another during these tough times. 

“It’s like a miracle happened,” she said. “We have had more volunteers this year than we have ever had, and it’s because people wanna channel their love and energy into something positive.” 

The organization is still looking for volunteers who want a chance to connect with nature and like-minded people while they dig in the dirt. Volunteers say it’s a great place to learn something new every day. Morgan, pictured above, has been working hard on the garden since March. 

This recent expansion didn’t come for free. Holmes said that at the beginning of the pandemic, the Templeton Foundation reached out with an offer to change what funding the nonprofit applied for. Since no youth volunteers were coming in, Focus on Youth decided to focus on the garden. 

Selene is a volunteer at the Sunflower Farm. She started working there to get more involved with the community.

The Sunflower Farm donates its produce to the Neighborhood House and recently started donating to St. Anthony’s Church as well. Lines at food pantries have been long during the pandemic, so the extra produce is needed. Sunflower Farm is also home to 35 chickens, most of which were adopted recently to provide a good source of protein to people in need. The organization is hoping to donate over 9000 eggs by the end of the year. One thing they lack is egg cartons for transport; donations of these are appreciated. 

The farm is home to lots of chickens.

Holmes hopes the farm will attract more young children and families in the coming months, as working at the garden is a tactile educational experience. This hands-on learning is even more needed as classrooms go online. “It’s as if you’re being immersed into a science book,” Holmes said. “I’d like as many children as possible to have that experience.” 

A small watermelon growing at the farm.

The farm is home to a plethora of flower, vegetable, and tree species, many chickens, a resident dog, mason bees, an impressive amount of compost, and a pond where salamanders and small fish can be found. 

Focus on Youth recently applied for funding to start a greenhouse so volunteers can save money by nurturing their own seedlings during the winter rather than buying them. And in a continuation of the farm’s expansion, they’ve also recently planted their first-ever batch of fall vegetables. Holmes hopes the flourishing of the garden will not only bring the community together but bring hope to all who are currently struggling.  

The Sunflower Farm has many of its namesake flowers.

“What a garden represents is hope, and we all need that right now … There’s so much worry and concern about staying safe, about having food,” she said. “There’s something that’s very spiritual about digging in the earth and knowing that you’re being of service to others, there’s a certain peace that comes with that, and just a quiet joy.” 

A garden is a place where all people can come together, regardless of background. The foundation of Focus on Youth is in photography and gardening, but also in cooking. 

“We all need to feel that we belong somewhere, and a garden is someplace where everybody can come,” Holmes said. “Whatever background someone is, we all join in food, and food is love.”

From Focus on Youth: Focus on Youth and our program Seeds of Hope teaches sustainable gardening and photography to at-risk and homeless youth at Sunflower Farm. Learn more on the nonprofit’s website:

Centro Latino Americano Provides Rent Assistance and Language Accessibility

Centro Latino Americano Provides Rent Assistance and Language Accessibility

Portland, OR. Centro Latino Americano (“Centro”) is helping the Latino community connect to and navigate necessary resources such as healthcare, housing, food, mental health support, language accessibility, and anything else community members need during the pandemic. Executive Director David Saez said the organization has been working hard to address urgent needs of the community right now, and rent assistance has been a top priority. Centro has raised about $50,000 for households in need.

The organization called individuals to determine what exactly the community’s needs were. Using information from these calls, Centro published a report to inform leaders and legislators about the current situation. Furthermore, Centro is working with the Oregon Worker Relief Program to help individuals who don’t have access to unemployment benefits or federal relief checks.  

The work is relentless, but gratifying.  

Pre-covid activities in 2019.

“Community members know very well that the challenges faced right now are far bigger than any of the stability we’re able to secure through critical supports like rent assistance,” one staff member said. “They [Centro] fortify and strengthen the ability of the community as a whole to continue forward in spite of the terrible blows dealt it by the pandemic and resulting policies and/or lack thereof. The success is the relentlessness with which community members continue to meet each day.”

Another concern is the need for news and information about the pandemic communicated in Spanish. 

“There was a lot of information going out early on, but it was not in Spanish, or it wasn’t getting to the community,” Saez said. “And we don’t have a significant Spanish language media source here in Lane County, so that makes it even more challenging.”

Centro has established a weekly briefing in Spanish with the Lane County Public Health Department, which is broadcast over Facebook Live and also texted to community members. Furthermore, the organization recently hired a speaker of Mam, an indigenous Guatemalan language, in order to reach those communities that don’t speak Spanish. 

Mental health concerns are also greater than normal. Centro is offering a free initial therapy session for community members, and an addictions support group is starting back up, outdoors and with social distancing measures.  

Community members graduating from a parent leadership training program

Centro has also worked with the Department of Public Health to provide COVID testing for Latino communities, and with a recent grant, they have been able to hire three new staff members to work on contact tracing and support for families of individuals who have the virus. 

The Latino community has suffered disproportionately from the pandemic. Saez hopes this moment can shed light on the pressing racial disparities in health care. 

“Despite all these really hard, difficult things, I really have hope that there’ll be some transformative outcome out of all of this, and I hope that it’s gonna make life better for Black, Indigenous, communities of color, the trans and LGBTQIA community,” he said. “It feels like we’re in a brilliant, critical moment socially. I think we have the opportunity to come out of it stronger if we follow the right leadership.” 

From Centro Latino Americano: Centro Latino Americano empowers Latino families by providing opportunities and building bridges for a stronger community. Our vision is a thriving, connected community where all people are valued.


Assistance League Thrift Shop Raises Funds for Needy School Kids

Assistance League Thrift Shop Raises Funds for Needy School Kids

Portland, OR. The Assistance League of Greater Portland’s thrift and consignment shop reopened for a one-day sale on August 15th. The money raised at the sale is earmarked for the Operation School Bell Program, which clothed 4,196 children last year in the Beaverton, Hillsboro and Portland Public Schools districts. Janice Cushman, Vice President of Marketing/Communications says the Assistance League’s motto is “No child should wear poverty to school.” Cushman said one of the biggest challenges will be finding which kids need vouchers or clothing the most, as students initially will not be in schools. School counselors will be working on identifying the children most in need.

The Assistance League also provides Fred Meyer shopping vouchers for kids in need. 

“My family has experienced homelessness for a long time and last year we finally had a place to call home,” said one parent. “It was a blessing to have my kids chosen for this [Operation School Bell] program. It made them feel special. They told me, ‘Now with my new clothes, I won’t be picked on in school.’ I cried happy tears.”

Every child should have adequate clothing to wear to school.

Assistance League members also coordinate three additional philanthropic programs. ASK (Assault Survivor Kits) distributed 153 kits to 17 local hospitals and facilities to provide victims of rape and assault with clothing and personal items. Thirteen Portland Community College scholarships were granted to students pursuing careers in trades. Funds for tuition, books and materials help students develop skills and expertise to earn a livable wage.  Cordero House, a Janus Youth program, is supported by members to enrich the lives of teen boys as they rebuild their lives with bi-monthly activities.

The Assistance League is always looking for volunteer members which make up its backbone. Members work in Thrift and Consignment helping with selling, inventory, prepping donations and more. There are a variety of committees where member skills are put to use in fundraising, finance, marketing, retail and program implementation, plus the enjoyment of making new friends while make a difference.  Find out more online  or email [email protected]. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram, too. 

The nonprofit’s annual fundraiser, Promenade Portland Fashion Show was canceled due to COVID, but the organization has been busy. Members are meeting on Zoom to finalize program needs and revamp the Thrift and Consignment Shop for a safe shopping experience. It’s located at 4000 SW 117th Ave, Beaverton, OR 97005.

From the Assistance League: Assistance League of Greater Portland has been serving the greater Portland area since 1961. Our local community service programs benefit children and victims of violence. We offer a scholarship for students pursuing a trade school education. We fund these programs by operating Assistance League Thrift and Consignment Shops, through grants, special events, and donations.


Kairos PDX Keeps Kids on Track During Chaotic Times

Kairos PDX Keeps Kids on Track During Chaotic Times

Portland, OR. The KairosPDX educational nonprofit is individualizing its programming to serve kids at home. The program serves over 170 students in grades K-5. The focus of the nonprofit is working to transform education into a system that sees and nurtures the whole child. Through policy advocacy and direct service, the organization works to change a structure that has historically disempowered black and brown communities.

The nonprofit’s holistic approach has helped it weather the COVID-19 pandemic. “We were able to retain the same attendance levels that we had pre-pandemic and it was largely because we centered care and connection in everything that we did,” Ladd said. “Multiple times a week there were check-ins with families, and it was really just a space for families to come together and vent and ask questions and be in a safe space to experience what we were experiencing as a collective.” 

Kairos focuses on the whole child and all their needs: academic, social, emotional, cultural, and more.

Similar check-ins were available to kids individually. Kairos was able to provide nutritional support, computers that had been donated, and Internet access so that each child could stay healthy and focused on learning. 

Kairos prioritizes the “whole child,” in the classroom, including social, emotional, cultural, and identity-affirming aspects of wellbeing. The organization has done training with educators as well as people outside the educational system to work on how to better support whole kids. 

“We talk a lot about the humanization of children being at the center of education,” Ladd said. “Seeing the humanity in each child means seeing all that they bring and seeing that as an asset. Schools have a tendency to dehumanize children and their value.” 

Kids need this type of support more than ever amidst the rapid social changes occurring right now. 

“With both the racial justice and COVID pandemics, for many it’s like a trauma in the sense that it’s thrown people’s lives into chaos and everything that they knew is no longer,” Ladd said. “That is a traumatic event that will have an impact on children’s mental health and wellbeing.” 

Creative projects support academic engagement

The executive director said that this turbulent time has provided some opportunity for the community to come together around important issues. Kairos partnered with some other black-run organizations and faith-based communities to do a food distribution. The organization also partnered to offer free COVID testing for the surrounding community. 

“I found in this time, while there were challenges, our community did what it often does, which is come together to support one another,” Ladd said. “It wasn’t about who runs what organization, it was about how we support the children and families that we serve and this greater community and how we utilize each other’s strength to better support them.”   

This is also an opportune time in terms of racial justice. Kairos is working with other black-run organizations across all sectors to lobby members of government for policy changes. Ladd said that with the awareness raised by protests in Portland, policymakers are more open to legislation advocating for racial equity. 

Kids need support in academics now more than ever.

“Obviously our work is very much in the heart of racial justice and economic justice … the work is not new work for us, but I think the new global and statewide attention has definitely created more work,” Ladd said. “I think this is a period of time to continue to lift up the voices of leaders in the black community and other communities of color. ” 

These leaders are working hard to lobby as a collective, run their individual organizations, and care for their own homes and families. Ladd said her biggest challenge right now is that there is not enough time in the day. 

“It’s been a lot of extra work, a lot of late-night zooms,” she said. “There’s so many important things to do. And it’s a marathon, not a sprint, but still, you gotta keep running.” 

From KairosPDX: KairosPDX is an education nonprofit focused on transforming education through a model built on love and inclusion that elevates the voices of historically underserved children, their families, and their communities. ‘Kairos’ is an ancient Greek word meaning the right or opportune moment (the supreme moment), or a moment of indeterminate time in which something special happens. 

CASA for Children’s COVID-19 Pivot Draws Younger Volunteers

CASA for Children’s COVID-19 Pivot Draws Younger Volunteers

Portland, OR. The Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children has faced challenges moving its services online but continues to advocate for foster children in the courtroom. One silver lining is that online orientations due to the pandemic have unexpectedly helped the organization recruit younger volunteers. CASA Executive Director Betsy Stark Miller explains that there was some initial concern that recruiting CASA volunteers online, instead of in-person, would be an issue, but it has had unforeseen benefits. “I have watched the age demographic drop,” she said. “This is great because having a young CASA advocate is very beneficial if you are working with teenage or preteen youth.” 

Before this change, most volunteers were 50 to 60-year-old women. Now, they are seeing volunteers in their 20’s. 

Anyone can be a CASA volunteer. They train for 35 hours before taking on their first case. Then, work under a supervisor.

Along with diversifying the age range, CASA for Children has been working to be more culturally responsive. Many kids in foster care are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC), while the vast majority of CASAs are white and may have a socioeconomic situation that enables them to do highly time-intensive volunteer work. Miller and her associate Laura Collins (Major Gifts, Development & Communications Director) said that CASA’s “Knowing Who We Are” training helps volunteers recognize their own social positioning in order to help them better assist kids who come from different backgrounds. “I think the community needs to know that we are doing everything we can by training our CASAs and our staff to be culturally sensitive and responsive to the kids that disproportionately come into foster care who are children of color,” Collins said.  

CASA for Children’s social awareness training helps mitigate the racial divide that often occurs between advocates and clients.

CASA for Children already had a remote plan prepared when the pandemic hit, and fortunately has been able to keep all staff supervisors employed. However, Major Gifts, Development & Communications Director Laura Collins said that virtual interaction is not ideal for CASA volunteers and their clients. One CASA said that it’s challenging to not be more physically present with the kids. “It really speaks to the commitment these CASAs have to this program,” Collins said. “We are still able to successfully provide really high-quality advocacy to the kids who have CASAs right now.” 

Many volunteers are even taking on a second case. “The thing that’s been really powerful is our team is experiencing that emotional commitment,” Miller said. “What’s been really impressive to me, and overwhelmingly uplifting, is that our CASAs have stuck through this really difficult time. Our CASAs would not stay if our team was not doing a wonderful job, because it’s not easy.” 

COVID-19 has made some things more difficult. In many cases, hearings have been postponed due to technical difficulties. This takes a major toll on the kids and their families. Courts are backlogged in Washington and Multnomah counties. “With COVID in place I am really concerned that we’re gonna see cases last longer than they should,” Miller said. Miller and Collins also said that going into the future, they expect to see an increase in the number of kids who need their services. During pandemic restrictions, domestic abuse is still happening, but kids aren’t leaving home as much, which allows it to stay hidden. 

“Children aren’t going out and getting their voices heard,” Miller said. “They’re showing up in emergency rooms with more severe abuse markers than doctors have seen in recent history.” As abused kids return to school and life outside the home, mandatory reporting will expose these cases and the kids will turn to services like CASA as they go through the foster care system. 

Children in the foster care system without permanent living arrangements need community support during the pandemic more than ever.

CASA for Children was able to move its annual auction online to maintain some revenue, but the nonprofit still needs support from the community during this time. 

“We really need the support of our community to still step up and help us,” Collins said. “Sure we are in the foster care sector, but really were about healing and resiliency. We’ve always been about that, it’s at the core of our mission, helping kids who have gone through profound trauma heal and hopefully have a better chance of a life that has potential.”

Here’s a video about the organization:

From CASA for Children:

A CASA is the tireless and passionate protector of a child who has been abused or neglected and is experiencing the trauma of involvement in the system. They are granted tremendous authority by the court and are able to do what it takes to see that a child is not ignored, their best interests and critical needs are addressed, and that the presiding judge is able to understand the true facts of a child’s condition in an over-burdened child welfare system.CASAs are in a unique position to work in the system without being of the system. Throughout the process, CASAs have permission to visit the children regularly, talk to a child’s parents, teachers, caseworkers, doctors and therapists in order to hear all perspectives and give an unbiased portrayal of the case to the judge. CASA advocates help kids through the system safely, quickly, and more effectively.