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Pandemic restrictions idle many Gresham-area helpers who are anxious to get back to 'work'

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Peggy Armstrong, a retired fabric buyer, has spent about 10 hours per week for more than decade at Hall Elementary School helping kids improve their reading skills.

"I miss the kids," laments Peggy Armstrong, who has spent more than a decade helping students at Gresham's Hall Elementary School become better readers.

Shutdowns designed to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus upended life in many respects.

The closures have kept many dedicated volunteers out of their "jobs." And, many miss the service to community, personal fulfillment and camaraderie their volunteer work brings.

Of course, the demand for some types of volunteering has continued, even increased, as a result of the coronavirus safety restrictions. Food pantries, for example, have seen needs skyrocket as families have plunged into economic hardship by stubbornly high unemployment. Outdoor park and trash cleanups have continued, albeit altered for pandemic safety.

But many of those who volunteer have been idled.

The dedicated troops that work with students on their reading or shelve books in school libraries aren't needed because the kids are learning at home. The summer reading program at Multnomah County libraries was online this year, eliminating the need for volunteers that man those stations in branches, handing out kudos and prizes.

Churches don't need ushers or coffee hour hosts because most services are online. And the small armies that organize and manage big community events, such as Gresham's Teddy Bear Parade or Troutdale SummerFest, are not needed. The list goes on.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Cheerleaders are a popular draw at Greshams annual Teddy Bear Parade, which was canceled this year, much to the disappointment of parade goers and volunteers alike.

"Gresham misses the Teddy Bear Parade as much as the volunteers," said Mary Ellen Robbins, a board member of the Soroptimist International of Gresham, the group that organizes the Teddy Bear Parade.

"I'm bummed that I can't volunteer as much since COVID hit," said George Fox University freshman Jose Luis Pasaye.

Pasaye volunteered countless hours with multiple groups when he was in high school. Potluck in the Park, one of his favorite volunteer gigs, has changed its operations and needs far fewer volunteers, Pasaye said. The demands of college have also cut into the time he can volunteer, he added.

COURTESY PHOTO: PAUL OBRIST -  Paul Obrist, a volunteer leader at Greshams Cornerstone Church, at his day job.

"I miss not only serving, but teaching others how to serve," said Paul Obrist, who is normally the volunteer in charge of the "operations teams" for Gresham's Cornerstone Church.

The church meets at Powell Valley Elementary School. Obrist's crew would normally come in Sunday morning and transform a school into a worship space, hauling in and setting up chairs, music infrastructure and sets, and then breaking it all down after the church's service.

"Missing out because of COVID-19 has been killing us," Obrist said of the volunteer team.

"We haven't had this opportunity since March," he added.

But not all volunteers are idled.

Armstrong, the Hall Elementary volunteer, is an expert seamstress and pivoted to making protective masks during the shutdown. She has donated the masks to frontline workers such as school nutrition employees and anyone else who needs a face covering.

Soroptimist Robbins said she has continued some of her volunteer work via online meetings. But, she said, she felt "a sense of loss" over the Teddy Bear Parade's change to an online event this year.

The parade is the group's biggest fundraiser, but they have been able to continue their programs supporting women and girls, despite the financial loss, and that "takes some of the sting out" of missing the parade, she said.

Obrist runs Gresham's G&P Obrist Excavating. He's also found other ways to help out in the community. The recent wind storms knocked down a tree in an elderly woman's yard, and he took his machinery over and cleaned it up for her.

Cornerstone is having limited in-person, pandemically-correct worship and Obrist does some setting up, but he's anxious to get back to regular worship services and the volunteering that entails.

PMG PHOTO: TERESA CARSON - Jose Luis Pasaye, a freshman at George Fox University, is bummed that his volunteer jobs have dried up to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions

Armstrong said the AARP Experience Corps, which supplies the volunteers to the schools, offered some online tutoring opportunities, but she felt it wasn't a good fit for her and declined.

Echoing the sentiments of other volunteers, Armstrong said, volunteering "was a social outlet, too, in a lot of ways." She was saddened to learn of the death of one of her co-volunteers while the tutors are on hiatus.

Obrist also misses the fellowship of his co-volunteers.

The group of mostly men arrives at the school early to set up and generally has some down time before the church service begins.

"We grab a cup of coffee and have some guy time," he said.

Obrist said he misses the personal satisfaction he gets from the opportunity to serve, and said missing it is "a real hardship."

Armstrong said she can't wait to get back to tutoring at Hall. "I miss it terribly. It was a big part of my life."

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