Volunteers assist clients getting clothes, food items

Students from Centennial Learning Center provide much welcomed volunteer help at SnowCap Community Charities, 17805 S.E. Stark St. Portland, which serves low-income folks in East CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: DANNI MOONEY  - Students from Centennial Learning Center  volunteer for weekly four-hour shifts at SnowCap Community Charities and serve as personal shoppers, helping clients select a variety of nutritious food items. Filling grocery bags with frozen food selections are Bandon Nystrom, left, a senior who will graduate in December, and Travis Guile, also a senior, who will graduate in June.

Recently, student Markus Thomas, 17, spent his first day at SnowCap, rolling up his sleeves and working as a “personal shopper” as he joined his schoolmates filling food carts for clients.

Meanwhile, down the hall in the donated clothes closet, classmates Yolanda Blanco, 20, and Flor Soriano, 18, helped a low-income couple find some warm attire appropriate for the coming chill of winter.

Blanco has been volunteering at SnowCap since late summer, helping folks pick out donated clothes for their families or select food. She also helps stock shelves and sort clothes.

“I actually like it,” she says. “It kind of relieves my stress a little bit, and I like working there after school. I really like helping people.”

She also has empathy for the folks she serves.

“I don’t really have that much money, so sometimes I have to live paycheck to paycheck and food stamps to food stamps, so I understand how it is,” she says.

Over at the intake window, Rusty Simms was assisting another student in registering a new client. Simms coordinates the evening program at Centennial Learning Center, an alternative middle and high school at 17630 S.E. Main St., Portland. The school serves 165 students from the Centennial School District.

Simms and his students volunteer each Tuesday from 2-6 p.m. to relieve other volunteers who serve more than 8,000 clients a month. Simms began recruiting the student volunteers for SnowCap in January 2008.

“We determined that a program of volunteering would teach certain academic skills coupled with community service responsibilities,” Simms says. “We began in the warehouse sorting food donations, then began organizing food boxes for clients.”

Eventually, the students moved from working solely in the warehouse to helping keep the food pantry and clothing facility open and then stationing themselves in the front office doing client intake.

“By volunteering at SnowCap, students are presented a chance to experience customer service, inventory control, business management and how to plan a healthy meal,” Simms says. A member of the SnowCap board of directors, Simms says his students bring a “can do” attitude to their weekly SnowCap stint.

“They are aware that they are being prepared for future employment or additional post-high school education opportunities.”

Under Simms’ direction, the relationship between Centennial Learning Center and SnowCap has developed into a community partnership.

“Many families at my school and in my district have access to SnowCap services,” he says. “We have middle schoolers who pack 40 food boxes once per month, which are voluntarily delivered by our school bus drivers to four elementary schools and then distributed to families who cannot travel to SnowCap.”

In addition, five students, including Blanco, from the day school program currently volunteer sorting food and doing food cart help every week.

“When community garden space got completely full at SnowCap this year, we were able to offer garden space at the school to SnowCap gardeners,” Simms says, noting four families have gardening plots at Centennial. He adds the school plans to work with Portland Parks and Recreation to open a large community garden within the next two years.

Judy Alley, SnowCap’s executive director, notes the student volunteer workers enable the agency to remain open to clients on Tuesday afternoons.

“These students provide us with an extra, much-needed shift,” Alley says. “Once word got out, our clients started to look forward to coming in on Tuesdays and working with the students. They are a favorite with many and help offset demand for additional volunteers from other sources.

“The students learn how to relate with our ‘customers,’ exhibit a hard work ethic and are a joy to work with,” she adds. “We have never had a problem with students not showing up for a shift.”

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