I’ve been thinking about it, and realized I have been volunteering in the Portland area for nearly 20 years.
It started when I was fourteen. Too young to work but my parents needed me to get out of the house and do something. So they made me sit down with a newspaper and look for a volunteer gig. And I’ve been doing something ever since.
I began with a group called Human Solutions, which helped families in transition. They needed teenagers to come in and do crafts and other activities for the little kids there. I didn’t last long there. I’ve never liked babysitting. So I moved on to Project Action, which was started, if my memory is correct, by the American Red Cross, in an effort to provide information about AIDs to the teen population. I loved working with them. My fellow volunteers and I would show up at a meeting place, be given big bags of pamphlets and condoms, and let loose in street fairs to hand things out. It was fun, and I felt very daring. This job lead to a spot on the fledgling teen speakers bureau, something I stuck with for four years.
This was serious, big “w” Work… We attended trainings and had monthly meetings and yearly working retreats to the beach. Myself and another presenter would go into a middle- or high school and give talks about AIDs and other STDs and give kids the tools to make informed decisions about their sexual health. We taught prevention but what I feel was most important was that we taught communication skills as well. And sometimes, I hear myself in conversation with a partner, and realize that the skills I was taught nearly twenty years ago are still echoing in my mind.
I didn’t volunteer when we lived in California, or when our children were small. I would help with some of the outreach projects through our church, but with babies underfoot, I couldn’t really do a whole lot.
And it’s those babies that have driven me into my latest adventure in giving back. Searching for a way to cut another corner in my food budget while still feeding my children the healthiest choice possible, I stumbled upon the Portland Fruit Tree Project. Started as an AmeriCorps project several years ago, their aim is to get fresh, healthy produce to the families who need it. Tree scouts look for neighborhood trees, and the property owners are contacted for permission to harvest. A team of harvesters come and pick the fruit, sometimes as much as 400 or 500 pounds from a single tree. Half of that food is divided and sent home with the volunteers, many of whom are living on low incomes, and the other half goes to the local food bank. Portland Fruit also offers classes in tree care and food preservation, and is working to build community orchards in the Portland area.
I’m proud of this work. It’s volunteering on my level. I cannot work in a soup kitchen or filing papers at a non-profit. But I can put on my grubby jeans and spend an afternoon up a tree. I’m happy to take home some of the harvest. Last year I brought home apples, Asian pears, Bartlett pears, Concorde grapes, and persimmons. I would easily have spent $500 on that fruit, and I had a pantry full of amazing, healthy food for the winter.
Last weekend was my first harvest of the 2013 season. A bunch of us met up in a parking lot near OMSI, and made the trek south, into wine country, to harvest 2 acres of Queen Anne cherries. My lady Velah rode with me and it was fun to see her get so into the day and hear the pride in her voice, knowing the cherries she picked were going to go to a family who needed the food. We broke for a picnic lunch on a lovely pavilion overlooking rolling filbert orchards and vineyards, and we came home with about 6 pounds of cherries each. About 250 pounds of cherries went to the Yamhill County Food Bank. And I feel pretty amazing about that. We worked hard, and, for a few hours, made the world a little better.
A lot of the volunteer events I have helped with have one thing in common. Circle time. Before everyone gets started, you gather together and introduce yourself. Sometimes you say what neighborhood you have travelled from, or what your favorite fruit is, or how long you’ve been with the organization. Then you get your talk on expectations, safety, and any other instructions, and then you are off.
My introduction is always the same,
“Hi, my name is Deana. I’m from South East Portland. My favorite fruit is whatever is in season. My favorite thing about working with Portland Fruit is seeing the food that would be wasted go to the people who really need it, and seeing how excited my children get to see their favorite fruits come home with me…”
Rebecca from Kent, Doug from North East, Tri from Beaverton, Holly from Woodstock. Sometimes the same faces show up, over and over again. Sometimes not.
And you spend two or three or ten hours with these people, many of whom you won’t see ever again. All this is in an effort to help people you’ve never met….
And it’s worth every minute.
If you are interested in working with Portland Fruit Tree Project or the Oregon Food Bank, here are their websites:
I encourage everyone to get involved in their community in whatever way they are able. Pay it forward… the love you give out comes back to you, often when and where you least expect it.