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Community Action celebrates 50 years at empowerment summit

COURTESY PHOTOS: ANDIE PETKUS PHOTOGRAPHY - Jerralyn Ness has served as executive director of Community Action in Washington County for 31 years. She will leave that post Nov. 1.Donna Beegle knows poor. On Oct. 13, she told her story to almost 300 people gathered in Hillsboro for an Empowerment Summit hosted by Community Action.

Beegle, now a Tigard resident, was born into generational poverty. For many decades, most of her family was uneducated, unskilled and barely literate. They survived in temporary, minimum wage jobs that didn’t provide opportunities to move out of the war zone of poverty.

At 26, she walked through the door of Community Action to ask for help paying her utility bills. That was the beginning of her journey from a ninth grade high school dropout to earning a Ph.D in Educational Leadership from Portland State University.

The Hillsboro summit provided an opportunity to educate the attendees about poverty in Washington County, how Community Action is responding and what residents can do to help.

For the past 50 years, Community Action has been leading the way to eliminate conditions of poverty and create opportunities for people and communities in Washington County.

Swati Andarkar of Portland, president and CEO of the Children's Institute Coalition, praised Community Action for its holistic approach to helping families. Just as holistic medicine attempts to treat the whole person — the mind and the body — Community Action is concerned with bringing hope, help and change to the whole person rather than addressing problems piecemeal. Longtime Director of Family & Community Resources Renee Bruce will become Community Actions executive director next month.

Andarkar also highlighted the role of quality early childhood education in addressing long-term poverty. “The United States has been shortsighted and parsimonious with early childhood education,” she said.

Jes Larson, director of the Welcome Home Coalition and a Portland resident, emphasized the need for affordable housing to provide an environment for family stability and achievement. Even though Washington County is the economic engine of Oregon, it has not effectively tackled affordable housing needs, she said.

The summit also provided an opportunity to honor Community Action Executive Director Jerralynn Ness, who is retiring at the end of 2015. Ron Sarazin, past president and now a member of Community Action’s board of directors, recalled meeting Ness in 1988 when she gave a presentation to the board.

“Jerralynn helped me, perhaps for the first time, really open my eyes and notice local poverty,” he said.

Sarazin noted that Ness has worked for Community Action in Washington County for 42 of its 50 years and has served as its executive director for the past 31 years.

“She has dedicated her life to eradicating poverty, with the mission of helping struggling families achieve economic security,” he said.

A surprise guest, U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici read remarks honoring Ness’ service that she had submitted for insertion in the Congressional Record.

“Jerralynn spent her entire career helping people build better lives,” Bonamici read. “The communities of northwest Oregon will miss Jerralynn’s leadership, but her legacy will be carried forward through the families who are now enjoying lives full of opportunity and promise.”

Renée Bruce of Beaverton, Community Action’s Director of Family & Community Resources for the past 15 years, will assume the executive director position Nov. 1.

“Renée’s integrity, passion, deep organizational knowledge, strategic thinking, understanding of poverty and institutional tenure make her uniquely qualified to lead Community Action successfully into the future,” said Richard Odell, Community Action’s board chairman.

Bruce also paid tribute to Ness and said the agency will continue to aggressively pursue its mission.

“As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this organization today, we are also ready to look forward to the next 50 years of empowerment,” Bruce said. “I know without a doubt that we will continue to lead the way to eliminate conditions of poverty and create opportunities for people and communities to thrive.”