Volunteers played a critical role in keeping severe weather shelters open during the February storms

March 6, 2023

A late February storm that brought Portland to a near record snow accumulation, was followed by days of chilly temperatures and ice-covered roads, leaving many of the neighbors who lived unprotected in a precarious position.

That’s why Multnomah County and the City of Portland acted quickly to open severe weather shelters, with seven warming shelters open during the peak of the emergency. Open four nights and two daysthe shelter provides a place to sleep and warm for hundreds of Multnomah County’s most vulnerable residents, adding to the hundreds of shelter beds that are already open throughout the year.

But the scale of that response might not have been possible without the dedication of community volunteers, who stepped in to help keep the shelter open after the unexpected snow and resulting road conditions created some initial challenges for staffing. During activation, 85 community members volunteered to assist with all aspects of operating the shelter.

Community volunteers say that while work in shelters is often challenging and may not be suitable for everyone, it can be very rewarding.

Work provides meaningful and practical experiences

Phil Barber, a member of the community who works two nightsifts, said volunteering at the shelter helped him feel more connected to his community.

“In a culture and time dedicated to separating us from one another and from ourselves, it was powerful for me personally to experience something different, something connected,” said Barber.

Barber, who has worked during several heating and cooling center activations as a Environmental Emergency Team (NET) volunteers, keep coming back to volunteer at the shelter because this feels like a small but impactful way to support community members who are experiencing difficulties.

“I became one small data point in helping someone who was failed in many ways by our community and by our culture,” said Barber. “I am one small piece of evidence to that person that someone cares for them and someone loves them.”

For other volunteers, serving in a shelter refers to their skills or preparing them for the futureyour job. Mark Meininger, a NET volunteer who serves two shelter shifts, says that apart from feeling like he is serving his community now, volunteering at the shelter prepared him for the work he might do in the event of a natural disaster such as a major earthquake.

The NET program is an easy path for someone interested in volunteering. Thousands of Portland residents have undergone basic NET program training, which is offered free of charge to anyone living or working in Portland.

“Through a NET perspective, it gives me good training and experience for mass maintenance, which might occur during a big earthquake or something like that,” says Meininger. “But really, the quicker thing is I have the training and skills I can use, and I have the luxury of being able to have the time to be able to throw.”

Janet Stein, a volunteer through the Medical Reserve Corps who uses her training as a practice nursea titioner to assist with medical needs at severe weather shelters, said he appreciated using his professional skills and background in volunteer work.

“It helps me feel a little more useful because I have a special experience to add to it,” says Stein.

Her medical support work in shelters can range from assisting people with wound care and providing over-the-counter medication for minor illnesses, to life-saving work such as giving naloxone to someone who has overdosed.

“It’s nice to be able to go out and help neighbors and be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” said Stein.

Volunteers say the work is challenging but rewarding

Barber said every shift he worked was “heartbreaking”. During the most recent storm, a man came to the shelter wearing a Mylar emergency blanket and a wet hood, with no pants, shoes or socks. The man’s teeth were chattering, and the Barber said he thought it wasA man would have died had he not come to the shelter.

Barber has also helped staff administer naloxone to stop overdoses, and assist with other tasks such as cleaning bathrooms. But he keeps coming back because of the meaningful nature of work.

“This is a powerful reinforcement that there is a need, and that there are things we can do as individuals to be accountable to our communities that don’t involve the big picture, which just involve being individuals who show up with love,” Barber said. “It’s hard, and it hurts, and it doesn’t taste good, but it feels meaningful.”

Meinigner says the training the District conducts for volunteers, along with support from staff members who work shifts at the shelter, has made her feel supported in challenging times.

“A first-time shelter worker will never be alone in a situation,” says Meininger.

For anyone interested in volunteering for future severe weather events, County will be posting registrations, when available, for the two-hour online training session. Each session includes time for debriefing, and can be useful either before or even after someone has taken their first shift. For updates on opportunities, check multco.us/cold.

Stein says she has had a tough time volunteering, but the work is rewarding, which is what brought her back.

“It can be stressful, but I always feel satisfied. I found really meaningful work to do, to be where people were needed and part of a group effort to meet that need,” said Stein.

Stein also said he appreciated how conscientious the District was in conducting trauma-informed debriefings after each event, to ensure staff and volunteers had the support they needed to cope with what they experienced during activation.

“There are countless opportunities to decompress and debrief and make sure that we tend to do it,” says Stein, adding that the support after the event is one of the reasons he returns as a volunteer so many times.

Volunteers say working in a shelter may not be right for everyone, but it can mean a lot to people looking to serve their community.

“This is the one thing that is meaningful, saves lives, builds relationships, and generates real love that you can do,” says Barber.

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