LIGHT A FIRE
Awarded to a person whose volunteered time and services spur noteworthy change in the nonprofit community.
2014: Connie Kramer of Store to Door
We often think of volunteers and the people they serve as distinct communities, separated by a line of privilege or ability. Connie Kramer suggests that such lines can be crossed with inspiring results. Blind since her 30s, Kramer served for 18 years on the board of Store to Door, Oregon’s only personalized grocery delivery service for seniors and people living with disabilities—all while receiving her own weekly supply of fresh food and household necessities from the organization’s fleet of volunteers. Thanks to Kramer’s long-standing service and continued fundraising efforts, Store to Door has made more than 130,300 vital deliveries over the past 25 years, and continues to grow. Here, she talks about her commitment to the cause.
How did you first get involved with the organization? I found Store to Door at a resource fair for people living with disabilities in the early ’90s. My husband had been diagnosed with a neurological disease that meant he would have to stop driving, and I am blind, so cars were out for me, too. It took me a while to get used to the idea that we’d be depending on someone else to do our grocery shopping, but I’m so glad they were there when I needed them.
How does a weekly delivery impact the lives of Store to Door clients? It’s a very empowering service, because you can go into great detail about the fresh produce or specific brands you need, not just check staples off a list. And it’s way more than groceries! Volunteers can keep an eye on medical needs or further assistance for clients who are frailer. My delivery people have often become my friends. When someone stops in and visits for a few minutes every week, it’s hard not to form a bond.
What sparked your transition from client to board president? I was in my 30s when I started losing my vision—a young mom, still in college. I’d had other plans for my life, but I was thrown into the frightening world of living with a disability. There were people who made that transition easier: people living full, successful lives with disabilities and helping other people. I knew I wanted to be a part of that community, so when I was approached to join the board I didn’t hesitate. It was hard work, but I think every organization should have a client on their board, so they can have an inside look at how they’re operating on the ground.
You still donate and raise funds for Store to Door. What keeps you involved? I want them to survive so they can be there for people. We’re now reaching over 400 clients, but I wish they could help everyone who needs them.
Inspired by our amazing Light a Fire winners? Find out how to give back to
Portland's best nonprofits with our Guide to Giving!
2013: MICHAEL BERGMANN
FOR HIS DAY JOB with Nike, Michael Bergmann builds sneakers out of the most advanced and sustainable materials to be found. On his off hours, he builds sports access in the most challenging of circumstances.
Bergmann had already founded the PDXC youth cross-country program and invigorated track and field at Central Catholic and Holy Trinity schools. But North Portland’s Roosevelt, where 75 percent of students are from low-income families, presented much higher stakes. Before Bergmann, Roosevelt High School’s athletic facilities were in shambles. “The football field looked like a mud pit, the track resembled a parking lot, and the old wooden bleachers were rotted and condemned,” says Principal Charlene Williams.
“The vision was to build not just a regionally recognized athletic facility, but also a community center for St. Johns, where poor, high-immigrant populations were stuck in a school district that had given up,” says Bergmann. Beginning in 2007, he gathered diverse partners, from his church to Nike, to rebuild the school’s athletics field, including the crown jewel: a 400-meter track.
The result? School enrollment has increased since the project’s inception and Roosevelt athletes have catapulted into state championships. “It stands as a shining star in the St. Johns community and the envy of the entire city,” says Principal Williams.
2012: JONATHAN JOHNSONGRIFFIN
You have to look hard to locate the computer on the desk of Nike sportswear designer Jonathan Johnsongriffin, hidden as it is by a rainbow riot of sports shoes. The scene is fitting for a rising creative star who’s devoted his professional life to dreaming up sportswear—and his personal life to passing that knowledge on. When Johnsongriffin first arrived at Nike in 2005, he thought the Fortune 500 company could do a lot more to develop the careers of Portland’s urban youth—the very ones buying Nike products. So in 2007, the then 23-year-old founded the Nike Product Creation Experience, a product design training program for public school kids. Partnering with North Portland’s Self Enhancement Inc, Johnsongriffin and his cadre of 40 Nike professionals give 25 to 30 Portland public high school students each year an intensive, hands-on training in product design and marketing. Twice a week, the students meet with Nike employees to get lessons in public speaking, market research, product development, and even computer-aided design. Johnsongriffin wants the participants to envision a career in sports that isn’t dependent on, say, becoming a superstar point guard. “I wanted them to see Nike as a place they could reach,” says Johnsongriffin, who estimates that the group volunteers some 2,000 hours a year. At the end of each term, the Creation Experience students send their completed designs down a runway in a finale show. Past winners created a head-to-toe look for tattooed New York Knicks power forward Amar’e Stoudemire and were awarded a trip to New York, where they attended an NBA draft, met Giants’ wide receiver Victor Cruz, and visited Parsons School of Design. Even more impressive than the products, though, is the kids’ personal success: 100 percent of participants in the Nike Product Creation Experience have gone on to college.
2011: Barbara Rodriguez
Like so many dedicated volunteers, the soft-voiced Barbara Rodriguez would rather talk about the organization she supports than herself. But staff members at Adelante Mujeres (translation: rise up and move forward, women) have no problem gushing about the dependable woman who’s worked as a volunteer since the organization’s inception in 2002. Adelante provides continuing education and professional development help to 350 low-income Latina women and their families. Among other things, the group provides free business and GED courses, free training in organic farming techniques and marketing (including hands-on experience at the Forest Grove Farmers Market, which Adelante founded), and after-school programming for the children of working families. An indefatigable volunteer, Rodriguez donates the equivalent of five workweeks of her free time each year, serving on the board, helping Spanish-speaking preschool children prepare for kindergarten, and introducing the staff to new technologies. “Bobbie’s eternal patience, positive attitude, and resolute dedication to education and our organization are what make her an invaluable asset to this organization,” says Kate Jackson, development director for the Forest Grove nonprofit. A longtime kindergarten teacher in Oregon’s public schools and a former Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador, Rodriguez says it’s the children who keep her engaged year after year. “I am never depleted,” she says. “Every day is a learning experience. As much as you want to teach the kids, they’re the ones teaching you.”
2010: HOWARD HETZLER
The definition of greatness is doing small things with great love,’ or something like that—I stole it from Mother Teresa,” says Howard Hetzler, 84, with an impish cackle. Since 2002, three times a week—every week—Hetzler has cleaned the kitchens of New Avenues for Youth, an organization that helps homeless youth exit street life. But scrubbing counters, grills, and sinks is merely a tactic in Hetzler’s larger volunteer strategy: instead of chasing after troubled young people, he places himself in their path to free food. This way, the kids come to him. Someone might first visit the kitchen for a sandwich, but he or she will probably end up staying, and repeatedly returning, just to spend time with Hetzler, the organization’s oldest volunteer. He talks to the kids about the job market and how he handles his diabetes; he listens when they’re ready to open up; he models consistency, positivity, and respect; and he demonstrates that no work, however menial it may seem, is unimportant. “When these kids leave and then e-mail me about how they got a job—oh, my!” Hetzler says. “That’s better than being the president or all the pay in the world!”
2009: Jon Springer
There is little glory in paperwork, unless you’re Jon Springer, an Elders in Action volunteer who has helped elderly Portland citizens write off hundreds of thousands in medical debt. The nonprofit works to provide seniors with a better quality of life. Sometimes that’s as simple as offering a sympathetic ear, and sometimes it means tackling complex issues like medical debt. Springer waded through boxes and boxes of benefit statements, bills, collection letters, and financial aid applications, spent hours making phone calls, leaving messages, even writing e-mails to the associate director of hospital finance at OHSU. “It can be overwhelming,” says Springer, whose seven-year stint as a state employee assists him in navigating the hospital bureaucracy. “You just have to be patient, persistent, and polite.”
2008: Don Fiser
The room is filled with families waiting for 35-pound boxes of food to emerge on a conveyor belt at Portland’s Sunshine Division, the 91-year-old food relief organization that was once a branch of the Portland Police Bureau. What the families may not know is that almost every box that goes out the door was carefully filled by one set of hands. Don Fiser began packing food boxes for Sunshine Division years ago after retiring from Portland Community College, where he had worked for 30 years, most recently as vice president of enrollment. “They calculated that I have packed about 50,000 boxes,” he says. Fiser has come in four afternoons a week for over a decade, and can easily demonstrate how he makes sure each box is nutritionally balanced before it goes out (some 400 needy families receive boxes each month). “While I’m packing these boxes, I just think about how someone is going to be thrilled to take them home, open them up, and see what’s inside,” he says. “That’s the biggest reward for me.” ‘In this economy … it has come down to paying the rent or having enough food.’ Though Fiser has long been the only volunteer box-stocker in Sunshine’s warehouse, he had to bring on a few helpers to meet a rise in demand for emergency relief. He points out that most of Sunshine’s clients are employed full time, contrary to stereotypes about the poor. “In this economy, for a lot of people it has come down to paying the rent or having enough food,” he says. “That’s what we’re here for.”