THREE AUTUMNS AGO, Portland Monthly partnered with the Oregon Community Foundation and created the Light A Fire Awards to celebrate the achievements of the metropolitan area’s lesser-known charities, as well as the volunteers and benefactors who support them. Each year, the selection process begins with an online ballot, where executive directors from local nonprofits and Portland Monthly subscribers nominate individuals and organizations in 13 award categories, explaining in 250 words or less why nominees deserve recognition. Our selection committee then reads through the ballots (347 this year) and chooses winners based not on the number of votes each nominee receives, but on the impact they’ve had in our community. Now that the October 30 gala has passed, we reintroduce our Light A Fire winners here, in the hope that their stories will spark another round of giving we can celebrate in these pages next year.


North by Northeast Community Health Center

THE NORTH by Northeast Community Health Center officially opens at 6 p.m., but by 6:30, every seat in the clinic’s waiting room is taken. That’s partly because demand for the clinic’s services is so great—and partly because the reception area is so tiny, 10 feet by 12 feet at most. In fact, just eight second-hand chairs fit into the space, but one man, who hopes the doctors can cure the infection ravaging his cracked and cut hands, has been waiting just outside since 3 p.m. to ensure he gets a seat. A few feet away, nine volunteers crammed into the intake office consult charts and make phone calls. On the clinic’s front porch, nurse practitioner Ward Mann gestures emphatically, stethoscope swinging from his neck, to a patient.

“I just don’t know what we’ll do this winter,” says Dr. Jill Ginsberg, the clinic’s cofounder and a part-time family practitioner at Kaiser Permanente in Vancouver. “During the summer, it’s fine for patients to be waiting outside, but we can’t have them waiting in the rain.”

This wasn’t a concern in 2006, the year the free medical clinic on N Williams Ave—which is open for walk-ins on Thursday nights and by appointment on some Monday evenings—started with just two exam rooms and five doctors. The night they hung out their sign, just four patients showed up. But in a state where almost 17 percent of the population has no health insurance (nationwide, only 13 states have higher rates of uninsured residents), word about free health care travels fast. Over the last year, the clinic, which provides free consultations, prescriptions and lab tests to the uninsured, has seen its patient roster grow to more than 500. Every Thursday up to 20 people show up hoping to see a doctor.

The lack of space isn’t something Ginsberg can worry about tonight, though. She has eight patients in need of treatment, prescriptions to hand out and a new office manager to train. “It’s like Pastor Mary says,” Ginsberg quips. “‘You just have to do the next thing. You don’t have to see what’s at the end of the road, just what’s in front of your foot.’”

Pastor Mary is 70-year-old Mary Overstreet-Smith, pastor of North Portland’s Powerhouse Temple Church of God in Christ, who cofounded the clinic with Ginsberg. Overstreet-Smith, who hails from Gulfport, Miss., made local headlines in 2005 when she underwrote the evacuation of Hurricane Katrina refugees at a time when many people were bemoaning the ineptitude of the federal government’s relief effort.

“We have to do more than say something,” Overstreet-Smith remarks. “Most of the time we’re waiting on someone else, like the president, to do something. He moved too slow for me, so I sold my house and brought 31 families to Portland.”

"It’s like Pastor Mary says: ‘You just have to do the next thing.’"

The day the levees broke, Overstreet-Smith wired money she had in savings to her daughter, who had escaped from Gulfport to Tennessee, with instructions to rent a van and collect as many survivors as she could. When all was said and done, more than 100 Katrina refugees found themselves on airplanes or Greyhound buses headed for Portland, where Overstreet-Smith had already found apartments for them and paid three months’ worth of rent (using the proceeds from the sale of her home). But when Overstreet-Smith took the families to what was once a free medical clinic on NE Alberta St, she discovered it had closed down.

“I had to take them to a crowded ER,” says Overstreet-Smith. “And while I was sitting there I thought, ‘These people need care. I should open my own clinic.’” All she needed was a doctor.