Volunteering in Vernonia

Volunteering in Vernonia

As written by Kathy Brazell, Project Director, Community Partners Reinvestment Project

Haunting images of severe flooding in the small town of Vernonia, Oregon repeatedly flashed on  the local news in December 2007, and Pam Lewis, a parole officer (PO) working with the Community Partners Reinvestment program (CPR) wondered how she could help as the rain continued to beat down. The CPR program is designed to reduce the risk of re-incarceration for young men between 18 and 25 who are returning home to Multnomah County from correctional settings. The next morning, Pam talked to the team of CPR counselors about organizing a flood cleanup effort with participants from the program.
 
Pam’s supervisor, Pete, approved the flood cleanup as a Community Service project complete with County vans, uniforms, and tools. But getting Pete’s buy-in was easy compared to the challenge of motivating this age group. As an incentive, the PO’s offered to waive two months of supervision fees, an expense that all parolees must pay while under county custody, plus buy breakfast at Starbucks. The staff targeted participants who struggled to pay these fees because they weren’t working, knowing that the PO’s had the additional leverage to sanction the volunteer work as mandatory if the young men refused to take part. This combination of incentives and sanctions helps the CPR counselors and PO’s engage these young men in positive community activities.
 
But, surprisingly, they were thrilled to get involved, and everyone arrived at Starbucks early that morning. The rain continued and the river swelled as they drove farther into the wilderness of rural Oregon than most of the young men had ever been. In Vernonia, the other volunteers shied away from the tough job of pulling insulation out from under the flooded homes, but the CPR Team took on the challenge. Four of the men went right under the first house and the others formed an assembly line hauling the saturated insulation away. While PO’s typically supervise these projects, Pam and the others rolled up their sleeves and pitched in.
 
It was POURING rain, and soon, their rubber suits, gloves, and sneakers were covered in mud, but the CPR participants didn’t complain. On the way home, the guys were beat tired, and commented how they felt really proud. ”Jose,” who had been involved in the criminal justice system since he was 15, turned to PO Pam and said: “I’ve done a lot of bad things in my life, but I just wanna thank you guys for giving me the opportunity to do something to feel good about myself.”
 
For their work with the Vernonia Flood Relief, Pam Lewis received an Employee Recognition award from Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice, and CPR received the Meritorious Service Team Award. Realizing that this was harder work than ever imagined, Pete waived 6 months of supervision fees -- something the guys didn’t learn until their CPR graduation.