Resource center celebrates 10 years of helping needy families

by: Chase Allgood, Director Martha Ochoa takes inventory inside the Forest Grove Family Resource Center.

Tucked into a converted portion of the girl's locker room at Tom McCall Upper Elementary School, the Forest Grove Family Resource Center doesn't have a lot of room to work with. Although it's confined to a mere 400 square feet, the center nonetheless manages to help about 3,000 low-income people each year with everything from dental care to parenting classes.

'Of course, we're cramped - but we manage,' said Martha Ochoa, the center's founder and director. 'We're grateful for the space we do have.'

This Saturday, the Family Resource Center will celebrate its tenth year in Forest Grove during a Family Fun Fair. While kids enjoy such activities as the ring toss, bounce gym and arts and crafts, their parents can seek the advice of Legal Aid Services of Oregon, Essential Health Clinic and other partnering agencies expected to participate in the event.

Throughout the year, the center relies on these and many other organizations to provide assistance to its clients. Aside from directly providing people with food, clothing, hygiene supplies and other services, a major part of the center's mission is to direct families to where they can find help.

'The idea of the center is to be a hub - the one place you can go to get connected,' said Ochoa.

This network of cooperating agencies has proven to be crucial for the center, since many of the programs it used to offer - homeless assistance, counseling services, the toy lending program and the career resource library, to name a few - outgrew the center's humble facilities, forcing Ochoa to discontinue the projects.

Farming out these services poses some serious challenges, however. Difficulties with transportation and language - roughly half the center's clients are Hispanic - prevent many families from completing the necessary bureaucratic steps to get their needs met.

'The big problem with referrals is that we lose them, and they fall through the cracks. A lot of families will not follow through,' said Ochoa. 'In the ideal world, the vision would be that they could handle everything on site. You come to one place and get it done at that one location.'

Even though its funding has grown modestly since 1996, the center's finances are still too limited to permit this kind of expansion. When it was founded, the center received about $60,000 annually from the Washington County Commission on Children and Families on a three-year grant cycle. It now receives about $75,000 a year from the county, as well as in-kind and matching contributions of about $58,000 from the YMCA and the Forest Grove and Banks school districts.

Luckily, in some cases the center has found a way to work around the lack of space. For example, rather than having a permanent clothes closet, the center works with Northwest Children's Outreach. Families in need of shirts, pants, jackets or even diapers place orders with Ochoa and she picks up the articles at the organization's Beaverton office.

The Northwest Medical Teams' Dental Van program has also been able to circumvent the center's modest square-footage. On a monthly basis, up to four vans outfitted with dental equipment pull up to the center and service anywhere from eight to 12 patients each. The vans are staffed by local dentists volunteering their time and expertise.

'The dental work has been a blessing,' said Rhonda, a Family Resource Center client who didn't want to disclose her real name.

Rhonda and her husband Dave are living on social security disability payments. She has multiple sclerosis, while he has suffered from various forms of cancer for more than two decades, causing him to lose a leg and large portions of both lungs.

Even though they have no health insurance and can't afford to pay a dentist on their own, the couple's sense of pride prevented them from seeking help. Despite their misgivings, Rhonda and Dave responded to a mailer that advertised the center's dental services.

'When people don't walk in the shoes we're walking in, they don't think about these types of things,' she said. 'He didn't sign up for cancer, and I didn't sign up for MS. So, we humbled ourselves and decided we needed to do what we had to, so we could live.'

Today, the couple also takes advantage of the center's food box donations as well as a program that helped them buy Christmas gifts for each other and their teenage daughter last year. One of the dentists Rhonda met through Northwest Medical Teams even agreed to perform extensive oral surgery free of charge.

'He offered to do a root canal pro bono in exchange for a blackberry cobbler,' she related.

Rhonda and Dave are similar to other clients of the Family Resource Center in that they were initially drawn to one program but soon discovered that it had much more to offer. People who come to fill basic needs may return for classes in parenting skills or English as a second language, or vice versa.

'They go from food to hygiene items to clothing to mental health,' Ochoa said.

If people can get past the perceived stigma of reaching out for assistance, they may realize life can be a lot easier if you don't try to go it alone, said Rhonda.

'It really helped to know there are resources out there people can tap into,' she said.

The Forest Grove Family Resource Center's Family Fun Fair and 10 Year Anniversary Celebration will be held from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 30, at Tom McCall Upper Elementary School, 1341 Pacific Ave. in Forest Grove. For more information, call Martha Ochoa at 503-359-2598.