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Community Connection head encourages volunteerism
If anyone knows about tough times in Wallowa County, it’s Carolyn Pfeaster, who has worked at the local branch of Community Connection for 31 years.
“This November we served 497 people at the food bank, giving out 117 food boxes,” Pfeaster said. “It’s the highest number in one month ever,” she told a group of Rotary and Soroptimist members last week.
Each winter, the two clubs challenge each other to raise money for the food bank. So far, Soroptimist has raised $1,369 and Rotary $3,340.
Pfeaster said the generosity from the community and past food bank users is overwhelming. “During the food drive in Joseph last month a guy came in with a pickup load of food who said he had previously used the food bank and another man came in with $50 who said he had used the food bank the year before.”
Asked to speak about volunteering, Pfeaster said, “I feel like I’m preaching to the choir. You do much in this country and abroad, making sure people in other countries have safe water and education. Volunteering benefits the person you serve and it benefits you — it keeps you active, keeps your mind alert and gives you self worth.”
She said when she was a Meals on Wheels volunteer it was the best job she ever had. “People are so happy to see you — sometimes you are the only person they had seen all week.”
Pfeaster said, “I’ve always had a warm and fuzzy spot for volunteering with seniors and we have lots of opportunities through Community Connection. Come to one of our lunches and see how active and informed they are and hear their stories. Some are in their 90’s!”
As for poverty in the county, it may seem hidden, but the need is great. Pfeaster said, “We have a wealth of scenery. It’s lovely to live here, but jobs are hard to come by and seasonal jobs don’t cut it.”
She said she fights the stereotype that low-income people are users and abusers of the system. “I don’t believe that is true — I have not seen that in 31 years. I don’t know anyone on Wall Street or an investment broker, but I’m sure there’s fraud there, too. I can’t imagine anyone coming in to the food bank who didn’t really need it.”
She said she and her staff don’t take allegations lightly of people accused of abusing privileges to the food bank or other service. “We try to be very diligent. Most of our programs have to prove income. The guidelines are very stringent.”
She said Community Connection’s programs serve people below the 185 to 200 percent of poverty line, but, she said, they rarely see anyone at the high end. The current federally deemed poverty level is $23,000 annual income for a family of four.
Some of their programs, like heating assistance, are received once by a family. She said they recently helped a family of five with a total income of $900 a month with heating assistance. They received enough money to heat their home for two months. They had been on a waiting list. The mother works part-time, and the father is seasonally employed in the summer. “When I hear stereotypes of low-income people, I throw them out the door. If we are able to help somebody, we should help them.”
Pfeaster credited other county organizations that address poverty like Building Healthy Families’ programs, Wallowa Resources and Integrated Biomass joining forces with local loggers to provide firewood, and Fishtrap for its reduced tuition classes.
She said reaching out is important and education is key. “By mentoring someone it gives them the self confidence that they can succeed. I have a sign in my office that we abide by: ‘To be kinder than necessary because you never know what they are going through.’”