With the help of a local church, Oregon DHS overhauls child visitation rooms

by: VERN UYETAKE - Artist Lori Russell stands next to one of the three-dimensional paintings she contributed to the Department of Human Services office in Oregon City.For years, Jen Johnson and her fellow social workers at the Oregon Department of Human Services office in Oregon City faced the same basic problem every time they ushered a foster child into a visitation room to meet with his or her biological parents.

No matter how kind they were, no matter how bright their smiles or light their voices, they couldn’t do anything to change the appearance of the rooms — drab and industrial, hardly a welcoming environment for family reunions.

“It was just kind of stagnant and depressing,” Johnson said. “So it’s hard to put a family in there and say, ‘Enjoy this.’”

That disconnect between best intentions and harsh reality was apparent when members of West Linn’s Willamette Christian Church visited DHS last spring as part of the Portland Leadership Foundation’s Embrace Oregon project. They wanted to know how they could help, and the child visitation rooms clearly ranked first on the list of needs. by: VERN UYETAKE - Sokpak Bhell, left, and Cindy Conlin admire one of the new child visitation rooms at the DHS building in Oregon City.

Now, more than a year later, Johnson and her colleagues can look in awe at the transformation that has taken place. With the help of $15,000 raised during a Mother’s Day fundraiser, the church partnered with DHS workers to completely revamp the visitation rooms, adding fresh paint jobs along with new couches, televisions and three-dimensional artwork to line the walls.

“It’s fantastic,” DHS Office Specialist Liz Schroeder said. “Really, the only thing we could provide (before) was a safe, monitored area without the bells and whistles. These people came and they put the bells and whistles in the rooms.”by: VERN UYETAKE - Department of Human Services Manager Carlos Crutch and his 9-year-old son, Christian, check out the new Dr. Seuss-themed visitation room at DHS.

The recent unveiling of the new rooms was particularly special for Schroeder, who came up with the idea along with former colleague Katie Schaefer as part of a leadership class offered by DHS. They took it upon themselves to reinvent the first room with a Dr. Seuss theme, and originally planned to seek different sponsors for each of the remaining rooms.

“We started with the intent of having each room adopted by someone in the community, at zero cost to taxpayers,” Schroeder said. “We didn’t want any taxpayer money involved in this at all.”

That was before Willamette Christian Church and Embrace Oregon came along.

Led by Joy Dombrow — the church’s director of the adoption and foster care ministry and wife of Lead Pastor Joel Dombrow — the church group jumped full on into the project. Schroeder and DHS had found the only sponsor they needed.

“We asked to see if there was any sort of need here, and they were very open and generous in letting us come and help in whatever way we could,” Joy Dombrow said. “We wanted to make it more homey because we knew that families were coming to reunite with their children.

“I have the luxury at home of cuddling with my kids on the couch and reading them a story — it feels comfortable. But here it felt more office-like, hand-me-down furniture and that kind of thing.”

It was a team effort, as artist and church member Lori Russell contributed a series of paintings for display and Cindy Conlin applied her skills as a decorator to the redesign of each room.

“Everyone had a hand in it and it created something beautiful,” Schroeder said.

There will always be hiccups, especially in work as unpredictable as human services. Just after the rooms were opened up, Johnson was frustrated when neither a child nor her parents showed up for a 9:30 a.m. appointment. She wanted to work.

Yet if schedules and motivations are ever volatile, the refined visitation rooms provide at least one constant to rely on.

“It’s soothing, too — the paintings on the walls, everything when they walk into the rooms isn’t so much like you’re at an appointment,” Johnson said. “I think it’ll just be more comfortable for them.”

“We wanted to show them that they’re valuable and loved,” Dombrow added. “And we’re thinking about them and caring for them by putting them in an environment that feels like a home more. That was our objective, and I feel like we’ve done that.”

The Oregon DHS office is located at 315 S. Beavercreek Road in Oregon City and can be reached at 503-945-5944.

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> VERN UYETAKE - Project Coordinator Aimee Eckley and her 2-year-old daughter, Caitlin, play at the kitchen area in one of the refurbished visitation rooms.

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