Food Bank Photo 3

Raymie Blanchard examines onions in November 2019 at Community Connection of Northeast Oregon's Regional Food Bank, La Grande. Community Connection serves Union, Baker, Grant and Wallowa counties.

LA GRANDE — Community Connection of Northeast Oregon is the closest Union, Baker, Grant and Wallowa counties have to a one-stop shop for all community services.

The nonprofit organization established in 1969 has been working since then to bring local communities the programming and partnerships that help anyone who needs it. Jeff Hensley, assistant director at Community Connection, said the model works well.

"Instead of us doing everything and being spread too thin, we can work with other agencies," he said.

Community Connection provides an array of services, from housing assistance to youth and senior programming and health and wellness programming. The organization also is the location of the Union County Regional Food Bank, which is the distribution center for 21 food pantries across the four counties.

One pantry, Neighbors Together, has partnered with Community Connection for years. Hannah Voetberg, chair of the board at Neighbors Together, said the partnership helps with organization, especially when there are donations coming in from a variety of sources.

"If you want to have a comprehensive food bank, you have to work with CCNO," Voetberg said. "If these stores did donations individually, it would be impossible to give the way they do, it'd be a mess. I think centralized is best."

Hensley said having multiple food pantries across the counties also helps people access the food rather than make them come to one central location.

"The more food bank partners we have, the easier it is to access them," he said.

One reason CCNO does not handle all community services is because the grants that fund the organization often are specific, Hensley said. There are certain situations Community Connection cannot financially help with, such as gas money or a bus ticket. However, the organization can provide referrals to one of its partners — the Oregon Department of Human Services, the La Grande-based Center for Human Development, domestic violence shelters and services such as Shelter From the Storm, the Veterans Affairs office and churches. The partnerships work both ways. Churches and other agencies often refer people to CCNO for the services the organization can provide.

"We are already handling quite a bit," Hensley said. "One issue is Oregon housing and community services are very restricted on their budgets."

Hensley explained other organizations have the grant restrictions, so the funds must go toward housing or health and wellness programming and education. The circumstances makes these partnerships all the more important, bridging the gaps to provide a full spectrum of assistance.

Not every organization in the area partners with Community Connection.

Rise Inc. is a nonprofit agency for children with mental health challenges, adults with developmental and other disabilities, and aging adults. Rise, however, does not work with Community Connection.

Rise, like CCNO, has multiple programs to address various needs, all of which are federally funded and state operated. While Community Connection and its partners offer programming for aging adults, there are a limited number of options for children with mental health issues and adults with disabilities as compared with the coverage from Rise.

Debbie Ewing, the Eastern Oregon director for Rise, said a discussion about partnering with Community Connection has not come up at this point. Hensley said if there is an organization in the area with services that CCNO does not offer, a partnership is always possible.

"We might hear about something an agency is offering, services we don't have, and we get on board and meet about working together," Hensley said.

In most cases, people who come to CCNO for help are assigned a case manager who will guide them to services and follow up to ensure their needs are being met. Community Connection in 2019 handled 4,374 cases. Hensley said having one-on-one, in-person contact is key and helps people feel connected.

"When there is a client in need of help, we don't want them sent all over the place — they can get confused and tired," Hensley said. "We have a lot of programs and partnerships, and while (clients) may feel like they are being shuffled between agencies, they still have a central place they can go back to."

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