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A Heart for Others

Former Reynolds teacher wins prestigious award for work with Human Solutions
by: Carole Archer, From left, Diane Sherwin assists Linda and Roosevelt Clark, of Troutdale, pick out fresh produce at Snow-CAP Community Charities on Friday, Dec. 28. Sherwin was presented with the 2007 Lowenstein Trust award for her work with the underprivileged.

Diane Sherwin's 32-year teaching career, including 28 years in the Reynolds School District, ended abruptly 13 years ago when a drunk driver t-boned her car on a residential street. Her life nearly ended as well. Sherwin, now 70, spent the next 30 days in a hospital bed and was practically incapacitated when she returned home - she couldn't read for three months because her eyes wouldn't focus. It was a major adjustment for Sherwin, who said she likes 'lots of action.'

'I'd never really been extremely hurt or sick before,' Sherwin said. 'I thought I would just pass away, and that's how it would be.'

But that prediction did not pan out. Sherwin gradually recovered from three surgeries, including two on her lungs, over several years. At the suggestion of a neighbor, she took up volunteer work.

'He said 'I just see you gardening all the time. You like people. Why don't you give it a try?' ' Sherwin said.

So she did. And she did it well. On Wednesday, Dec. 19, Sherwin was presented with the prestigious 2007 Lowenstein Trust award in the Portland City Council Chambers. Established in 1991, the Lowenstein Trust Award recognizes people who assist Portland's underprivileged. Sherwin was awarded for her work with Human Solutions, which serves low-income families across East Portland and East Multnomah County. She also spends two days a week volunteering for Snow-CAP, giving out food and clothing.

Sherwin started in Human Solutions' energy assistance department, which pays utility bills for people with demonstrated need. But it wasn't long before Sherwin started innovating.

'One of the things Diane did is she realized is that many low-income people live in mobile home parks and heat with propane,' said Human Solutions Executive Director Jean DeMaster.

And many of the people in the parks were seniors who couldn't make it into the office - or who simply did not know about the program. So Sherwin brought the intake interviews on the road to mobile home parks.

Sherwin said a lot of mobile homes lack insulation, which makes the East County wind difficult to bear, and the furnaces don't operate at full capacity. Many of the people she met bought their homes after retirement.

'Their income has not increased with their utility bills,' Sherwin said. 'A lot of these people have been self-sufficient, and it's very hard for them.'

Her blend of compassion, creativity and energy has defined her life and work.

'I've just always been interested in people and moving around a lot,' Sherwin said. 'We said our family has sand in our shoes.'

Sherwin is living in her 30th house, in Northeast Portland, and grew up with several foster-siblings.

'It was a very lively household,' Sherwin said. 'One of the neighbors said it was better watching our house than TV.'

So it was fitting that Sherwin took over Human Solutions' Holiday Store four years ago. The store is open one week every December and offers holiday gifts for low-income families. The job demands lots of action. Sherwin spends the year marshalling a band of volunteers to find deals. Each family gets clothing, toys and one appliance.

'We go to every kind of sale possible,' Sherwin said.

Donations and sale items combine to pack two truckloads of gifts for the store, and is run out of the Montavilla United Methodist Church on Southeast 80th Avenue. DeMaster said 215 families participated in the program, and more than 1,300 people received gifts.

The gift program was almost cut when Human Solutions lost funding for its volunteer coordinator position.

'We didn't think we could have the holiday store at all,' DeMaster said. 'She said 'I'll take it over so it doesn't close.' '

But Sherwin did more than just take over the gift program. She also helped reinvent it. The store is actually an improvement on Human Solutions' adopt-a-family program. The old program paired donors with families who needed gifts. But there were no guidelines for giving, which created inequities. Some got more than they could handle, while others got a few boxes of macaroni and cheese. DeMaster said the transition to a store setup that offers choices was a group effort, but credited Sherwin's observations.

'Diane was seeing how unfair it was for families who got very little, and others who were overwhelmed,' DeMaster said.

Besides being more equitable, the store empowers families to choose gifts they want and need. And the gifts come directly from parents, as opposed to donors.

'I think it allows the parents more dignity and respect that they get to pick the presents,' Sherwin said.

Roberto Vargas is one of the parents whose kids received presents from the holiday store. Vargas and his wife have lived in East County for eight years. They have three children between the ages of 3 and 9.

Vargas works seven days a week, shuffling between two restaurants.

Vargas said there were presents wrapped under the tree this year, which the family stayed up late decorating earlier this month.

Vargas planned to request Christmas day off from work, saying he wanted to watch his children open their presents, something he never experienced when he was growing up.

'I want my kids to have that, so they can remember it,' Vargas said. 'Because I don't.'