When I moved to Portland and started to volunteer for Yellow Brick Road, I mentioned it to a friend who had at one time been on the streets over 10 years ago. He replied, “Oh yeah! I used to get toothbrushes and condoms from them!” This was my first sign that I was on to something good! Luckily for me, after 8 months of volunteering, I was hired on as an Outreach Specialist for Janus. Now, instead of just one night a week, I get to do one of the best jobs in the world full-time! I am also fortunate to say that I work closely with 3 other individuals who each have over 10 years of experience working with the youth of downtown Portland. This longevity is a testimony to the reputation that Yellow Brick Road has built in nearly 30 years’ time.
Each time we train a new volunteer, one of the things we emphasize is the vital importance of consistency. In our volunteer interview, we ask each applicant if they can commit to one day per week, the same night each week, for a minimum of six months. As a result of the dedicated volunteers who have donned a Yellow Brick Road bag over the last three decades, the volunteers of 2013 come in with a long-standing rapport and a trusted name in the Portland community!
Consistency is important on multiple fronts. Teams form a trusting bond when each member is assured of the mutual commitment of their teammates. Each member is able to more clearly identify their own strengths and areas of growth as well as those of their outreach partners. Confidence is built, team dynamics are refined, and safety is improved. Even more significant is the impact of consistency on Yellow Brick Road’s relationships with the people that we serve. Not only is there a team out every night of the week, but we carry with us the confidence that we can supply many of the basic needs of those persevering on the streets. Those supplies often create a means to get below the surface and connect people with the resources they need, process the daily struggles and triumphs of a life lived without a house, and make ourselves available as part of an extended support system.
Volunteer Jess talks about how she became involved in YBR. “YBR volunteers first approached me while I was in the Occupy Portland Camp. I actually didn't need any myself, but while living down there amongst the activists and the homeless I definitely noticed needs for just those kinds of things. I thought it was way cool, and I asked about who they were, and found out about Yellow Brick Road. After the Occupy camp ended, I decided to get involved myself as an ongoing way to be a part of serving the underprivileged in my city.” Mark’s path to becoming a volunteer was a little different. He says, “A friend of mine was involved with YBR. I was inspired from experiences I have had through out my life. A childhood friend of mine has been living out doors for the greater part of ten years, and I hope he has revived services from programs like YBR. I hope I was at least a positive face to someone's childhood friend.”
One volunteer with 5 years under his belt, Bill talks about a couple of his most memorable experiences doing outreach. “One was going out on Christmas dressed as an elf with my partner dressed as Santa. The reception was priceless. The other was going out during ‘Snowpocalypse’ a few years back when the city was virtually shut down for days. Both times, people were both shocked and extremely grateful to see us.” For Mark, a favorite YBR was hard to pinpoint. “I don't really have a favorite moment that stands out,” he says. “Sounds cheesy but I enjoyed every night I went out.”
As a word of encouragement to those volunteers currently reaching out on the streets of Portland and to those considering whether to apply, ten-year veteran volunteer Stella offers some words:
Volunteering with homeless youth has changed my life. I appreciate the smallest and simplest of things now. I’ve seen my husband change a lot by his experience as well. Our perspective on possessions, our personal values and acceptance of others has increased. My life is enriched by the people we meet on our outreach, the stories they share, and the resilient lives are an inspiration. I've learned to appreciate the moments with them whatever it may be. I actually find delight in meeting some of them. They often have the best behaved dogs I've ever seen.
I would love to have more partners out there on the streets. There’s safety in numbers, can cover more territory and honestly its a great way to see the Portland city lights from the bridges, the historical buildings, the full moon, stars and sometimes a beaver can be seen on the Willamette River. We can enjoy the festivals like the Rose, Blues, Beer Fests, Christmas Tree Lighting, and the occasional fireworks as we walk by.
It’s pretty evident that youth living outside are not the only people impacted by the work that Yellow Brick Road does on a nightly basis. This impact affects lives on a long-term scale. As we move forward, I just want to say thank you to all those who come along side the staff of Janus Youth Programs and give of their precious time to serve the resilient, vulnerable and valuable youth of Portland! Your consistency is priceless!
Heather Penzel, Outreach Specialistphotos by Stella Butler