Last year as the COVID-19 pandemic raged across the globe, and so many families were struggling and isolated, a longtime Gresham resident stood waving on the sidewalk, spreading positivity and kindness during a crucial weekly food distribution.
East Hill Church, in the heart of downtown Gresham, partnered with The Salvation Army to distribute food boxes — and Lori Stahlman was there each time doing whatever was needed to keep things running smoothly.
Stahlman did social media postings to spread the word and helped set up, but her favorite part was all of the small moments — a shared smile with a child, a joke that broke nerves into laughter, a quiet thank you.
"It is hard to have a heart for the community if you don't engage with the community," Stahlman said. "A volunteer creates friendships with the people you help. It's all about those relationships.
"We need to treat each other with respect and kindness."
Stahlman brings that mindset to every organization she volunteers with, and since moving to the area in 2004 she has worn plenty of hats. She is deeply involved at East Hill, is an ambassador with the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce, and a board member for Soroptimist International of Gresham. She also loves supporting SnowCap Community Charities, Birch Community Services, the Gresham Salvation Army, My Father's House, and any other group that tugs her heartstrings.
"When you help someone else you all of a sudden have a better day," Stahlman said with a laugh.
Though she always loved to give back, it was health issues that pushed Stahlman into such a focus on volunteering — a silver lining for a neurological disorder that prevented her from continuing work as a dental assistant with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
So Stahlman began searching for a new path. She worked three days a week as a real estate agent, but needed something else to fill her free time. So in 2012 she stepped into East Hill Church to fill out a volunteer application form. She began at the front desk, and has continued to expand her role within the faith organization.
In recent years that passion has perfectly matched the unexpected difficulties around the COVID-19 pandemic. Stahlman has continued to step up for Gresham and her neighbors during a time when communities need heroes now more than ever.
"I have been blessed with extra time to make a difference and there are so many (places) that need help," she said.
Center for care
As the pandemic struck, East Hill Church, 701 N. Main Ave., became a center for care.
That is not to say in years past the church wasn't supporting neighbors in need, but in the face of COVID-19, leadership chose to ramp up local efforts to support families and spread positivity.
"We are located in the middle of downtown Gresham, and we want to be a place to serve people in their times of need," said Deanna Hayworth, East Hill missions engagement coordinator.
A serendipitous pairing also helped set the stage for the renewed efforts just before the infamous "unprecedented times." Keith and Coco Jenkins were appointed pastors of East Hill Church in the fall of 2019, and have brought an inspired mindset.
"My wife and I are so honored to be able to serve this community and be part of the new future that God has planned for us," Keith said. "People should find a place to belong even before they believe."
When COVID-19 first struck, and the church had to shutter in-person service, everything went digital. More recently they have hosted large, outdoor services in the face of the delta variant to continue ensuring the safety of the congregation.
At the same time Coco spurred an outpouring of activism focused on uplifting neighbors in need. The list of services and charitable events is head-spinning.
East Hill opened its campus and partnered alongside the Salvation Army in the months of May and June in 2020 for the Share Hope Campaign, which distributed food to more than 35,000 people across the Portland region.
Following that, East Hill began its own food distributions. In 2020 the church passed out 6,975 boxes, nearly 4,000 loaves of bread, and more than 2,000 pounds of meat. In 21 weeks this year, they distributed an additional 6,500 food boxes, 5,000 loaves of bread, and 3,000 pounds of meat.
And though the distributions ended in June, as the USDA Farm to Family Fresh Food Box Program came to a close, East Hill still operates a small pantry of dry goods.
During COVID, East Hill also hosted Compassion Connect's medical clinic; collected soap, diapers, wipes, laundry detergent and dish soap for refugee families through the Rockwood CDC; and donated 2,000 pounds of food and $950 to Beyond Black's food drive.
The church opened its campus and parking lot for fire evacuees last summer, passing out snacks, drinks, breakfast and showers. At Thanksgiving they delivered 283 boxed meals with frozen turkeys.
And while all of those have made an impact, the most visible moment was "Helping Hands Community Outreach," which had hundreds of cars lined up along Main Avenue last December. There were so many families in attendance, Stahlman joked they shut down the city.
Through a partnership with Convoy of Hope last December, 200 volunteers passed out groceries, children's shoes and socks to families. Volunteers packed the supplies the day before, and the line of cars queued up at the East Hill parking lot. Two celebrities even made an appearance and to lend a hand — former Oregon basketball stars and NBA players Fred Jones and Luke Ridnour.
In total they distributed 1,000 pairs of shoes, 2,000 pairs of socks, and groceries for 850 families — each left with four bags of food.
Stahlman has been there for all of those events. But it isn't the numbers she remembers.
"You see the hope and the heart and how much they appreciate it," she said. "It's been my experience that most people are truly grateful for what you do."
Driven to serve
Stahlman can't imagine doing anything differently with her time.
Though she never expected to be thrust down a new path in life, she has taken everything in stride. It's been an easy decision because many of the organizations have had such a profound impact on her own life, long before becoming a community hero.
East Hill is a place she has found solace in the past through her faith; the Chamber supports businesses and restaurants she loves to frequent; the Soroptimists' mission of uplifting women rings true as she was a single mother raising kids while attending college.
"You want to serve in a place you feel good about," Stahlman said. "I can be part of something bigger than myself."
Learn more about some of the many groups Lori Stahlman supports in the community:
East Hill Church — easthill.org
Gresham Chamber of Commerce — greshamchamber.org
Soroptimist International of Gresham — sigresham.org
SnowCap Community Charities — snowcap.org
The Salvation Army Gresham Corps — gresham.salvationarmy.org
My Father's House — familyshelter.org
Birch Community Services — birchcommunityservices.org
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