A shot in the heart: Volunteer gig becomes a calling for Keizer teacher

Cortney Clendening visited a day center for unsheltered residents expecting a one-day gig as a volunteer, it turned into a mission.

Cortney Clendening didn’t plan on delivering snacks and water via wagon to homeless residents in downtown Salem last December.

“ARCHES needed volunteers for the day center and that’s why I went, but they had three staff members in quarantine so they sent me out with outreach workers,” Clendening said. “I asked a zillion questions and had the opportunity to connect with people. When you have the chance to wrap a scarf around the neck of someone who is cold … it hit me right in the heart.”

She went back the following week and volunteered again, in Cascades Gateway Park after the banks of the Willamette River swelled and took with it the possessions of some camped by the river.

Clendening returned to ARCHES the following day and assisted in a hotel where some of those who had been flooded out were staying.

“By the end of the day, I had a list of all these things that were needed: shoes, socks, underwear, clothes. I put out a call on Facebook and things just started showing up at my door,” she said. “There’s now whole spaces in my house that are clothes and other items waiting to be sorted.” It’s been like that for several months.

Clendening, a Keizer resident and teacher in the Salem-Keizer School District’s EDGE online program, felt she had to do something as the numbers of visible homeless people in the area skyrocketed during the past few years.

She’s been basing the work on a quote from a prominent social worker, Brené Brown: “Connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”

Her efforts have evolved into a website, where visitors can find out how to get involved with efforts to relieve the strain on and restore dignity to local unsheltered people, and deeper involvement in a Salem-approved homeless community growing on Portland Road North.

“I went out to talk with some of the people who have moved in and asked what they needed. They said boredom was one of the big challenges, so I went out and collected crossword and word search books, coloring books, games, colored pencils, pens and markers,” Clendening said.

Her latest focus is helping devise some communal activities.

“They had a bingo night that was really successful, but we could bring art workshops and other things that help emotional well-being. My hope is we could teach in such a way that the residents begin leading the activities themselves,” she said.

In some ways, the experience working more closely with unsheltered people has brought her work as a teacher into sharper focus.

“We are seeing kids coming to school with bigger traumas in their background and traumas that result from not having their basic needs met. Seeing how not having a place to sleep or knowing when you’ll have your next meal is affecting some of our neighbors has been like closing the loop. It’s getting to see what the possible outcome is if we can’t help our students work through trauma,” Clendening said.

As much as Clendening wants to assist those already experiencing homelessness, she also wants others to realize how close most of us are to being in the same situation.

“Most people aren’t that far away from becoming unsheltered. I’ve had some real changes in perspective and the realization that if I didn’t have a good support system, I could be out there with them,” she said.