LA GRANDE — With winter weather on the horizon, the Union County Warming Station is set to open its doors. Plans for the start of operations come with a caveat, though. The warming station’s debut, originally planned for Sunday, Nov. 21, may be delayed because of a lack of volunteers, said Lisa Ladendorff, a member of the Union County Warming Station Board.

Ladendorff said three volunteers are needed for it to open Nov. 21 and a total of 10 more are needed for it to be open through its first week.

The facility, on Third Street in La Grande, needs a total of five people to work each evening and morning session. The staff works rotating shifts between 6 p.m. and 7:30 a.m., in addition to the volunteers who bring in dinner each night for the warming station’s guests.

People who want to volunteer or make donations to the warming station may call 541-786-8779 or visit its Facebook page.

Ladendorff said the warming station’s operations will be on more solid ground once a manager is hired. The individual will be the first paid staff the shelter has had in its five-year history. The position is being funded by grants from the Oregon Community Foundation, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the Eastern Oregon Coordinated Care Organization.

Ladendorff said having a paid staff person will strengthen the warming station.

“It will bring us a lot more stability,” she said. “It will be a huge help.”

Ladendorff noted that having a manager for the facility will take stress off of volunteers, who in the past have been responsible for multiple duties, including setting up for each shift.

“This means everything will be ready when volunteers come in,” she said. “Volunteers will be able to focus on interacting with guests.”

The Union County Warming Station is being run this season with major assistance from the Northeast Oregon Network, which has its offices in the building that houses the winter-weather shelter.

Ladendorff said NEON wants to help the warming station maintain its stability, which can be difficult with only volunteers.

“Making the transition to a paid staff is a big leap for an all-volunteer organization,” Ladendorff said.

The Union County Warming Station operates out of the third home it has had in its five-year existence. The shelter was first at the Zion Lutheran Church in 2017-18 and in a Willow Street building in 2018-19. The warming station did not operate in 2019-20 because of issues related to the move to its Third Street location but was able to open its doors there in 2020-21.

The Union County Warming Station’s current site offers much more space than it had at its previous locations. This allows it to provide features such as separate rooms for families. The shelter is available for anyone in need of a warm place to sleep.

The shelter has a maximum capacity of 20 guests per night. Ladendorff said that nobody was turned away due to the warming station being full in 2020-21. The warming station had 74 separate individuals who were overnight guests and 40 separate individuals who came only for dinner in the 2020-21 winter season.

All guests and staff will again have to follow strict COVID-19 safety protocol rules this season. However, COVID-19 vaccinations are not required for guests or volunteers.

“We do not want vaccinations to be a barrier,” Ladendorff said. “We will all act like we are not vaccinated in terms of precautions.”

Ladendorff has observed that many of those who come to the Union County Warming Station are in search of human interaction as well as a hot meal or a place to spend the night.

“They are people who want to meet others, people who want to engage,” she said. “They want a human connection.”

She said that this seems to particularly true for many of the individuals who come for dinner but do not stay the night.

Ladendorff said the warming station staff strives to welcome all guests, whether they are looking for a warm meal, bed or smile — or all three.

“All of our volunteers have a passion for this,” she said.

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General assignment reporter

Beats include the communities of North Powder, Imbler, Island City and Union, education, Union County veterans programs and local history. Dick joined The Observer in 1983, first working as a sports and outdoors reporter.

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