Wednesday, April 08, 2009

To Ride, Shoot Straight, & Meet 'Em Where They're At!

2009 marks the 25th Anniversary of Yellow Brick Road! As we gear up to celebrate this milestone it seems like a great opportunity to highlight one of the many folks who make Janus Youth’s Street Outreach Programs so remarkable. Neal Sand is a professional Outreach Specialist with Janus Youth's Outreach & Engagement. "O&E", as it is popularly known on the streets, was conceived nearly 5 years ago as a critical offshoot of our volunteer-based outreach program with the mission of delivering intensive mobile services directly to the young people who need them most but are often the least likely to seek them out on their own. Since he joined the O&E team in 2006 Neal has packed his bag every week and headed out to the streets, bridges, wooded camps, squats, and pretty much anywhere off the beaten path where he might find Portland’s most vulnerable young people. He excels at meeting the “hardest to reach” youth where they’re at and he builds meaningful relationships that make a lasting difference.

Neal’s history with Janus Youth Programs goes back to 1998 when he began as a volunteer with Yellow Brick Road. The amazing part of his story is that Neal stepped into YBR to fill his sister’s shift on the team. His sister had in fact stepped into YBR to fill her then-boyfriend now-husband’s shift. You can safely say that serving the community is a family tradition. Neal far exceeded his minimum 6 month volunteer commitment, remaining on the YBR team for no less than 4 years before he applied and was hired as a substitute line staff for the Willamette Bridge Programs. He was soon hired on full-time, serving the front lines at Bridgehouse, Streetlight, and Porchlight Crisis Shelter before assuming his role as an Intake Worker for both the Access Center and the Road Warrior late night drop-in program. Over the years Neal has honed his skills with young people and left a wake of hilarious epic-length monologues in our staff log books.

Neal is a Journalism major with a gift for wry wit. That’s a nice way of saying he can laugh even in the shadow of life’s darkest ironies. It’s a skill that serves him well in our work downtown where we’ve needed both hands to count the folks we've lost on the streets in the past 8 months. Neal’s passion for laughter and language is a gift he has shared with youth in the form of creative writing and self-expression workshops. I’ve watched him make words come alive for young people with dub reggae and colorful beatnik poetry. I vividly recall the proud smile of a particularly hardened ex-convict after he finished reading his journal aloud to a group of equally hardened peers and beamed, “I never knew poetry doesn’t have to rhyme!” Neal believes in young people so unrelentingly that, eventually, they tend to believe in themselves.

Anyone who spends time with Neal soon comes to appreciate his love for cinema, which is a wonderful coincidence considering he got his start at a program that takes its name from a 1939 musical. Neal doesn’t just casually enjoy movies. He is a walking encyclopedia of obscure film trivia and his enthusiasm is downright contagious. One of his favorites is Django, an old “spaghetti western” that tells the tale of a brooding anti-hero who drags a coffin filled with ammunition through muddy frontier camps meting out justice and classic one-liners. I like to imagine Neal riding into the sunset on outreach like a badlands bandito. Of course, instead of a coffin full of guns he totes an outreach bag full of socks, cough drops, triple antibiotic, and resource guides. Like Django, he chooses his words carefully and delivers one-liners with a twinkle in his eye. Neal is a soft-spoken hero on the streets of Portland and he is one of the dedicated youth advocates who have made the Janus Youth Outreach Programs the acclaimed models they are today. I’m glad to know him. So are the youth.
~Dennis Lundberg

“Neal is an excellent outreach worker. He is very observant out in the field and has the ability to explain what steps people can take to improve their situation without being judgmental." ~Devin Dinihanian (RTA)

“Neal is kind, compassionate, and reliable…but those words always sound so cliché. I guess what I’m saying is I appreciate somebody who can handle any crisis but can also talk about Motorhead and bad zombie movies.” ~Jasmine Pettet (Outside In)

“Neal is so cool, he doesn’t even realize how cool he is!” ~ “Leyla” (Youth)

1 comment:

Kevin Killian said...

Good writeup! Portland is lucky to have men like Neal Sand.