For this month’s constituent spotlight, we spoke with Emily Coleman, volunteer coordinator for Transition Projects, a shelter operator and service provider for unhoused residents here in Multnomah County. Powered by our community’s spirit of service, Emily was struck by how eager people are to roll up their sleeves to solve social problems, such as homelessness, food insecurity, environmental threats, and more. Emily is a volunteer extraordinaire, both in her ability to coordinate a robust network of volunteers to support Transition Project’s daily operations and in her love of serving her community when she’s off the clock. Check out our conversation to learn more about Transition Projects, the pivotal role of its volunteers, and how you can lend a helping hand. Thank you, Emily, for all you do to support Transition Projects and our community more broadly. 

Please share a bit about yourself and what led you to Transition Projects. 

I moved to Portland after college because I’d heard wonderful things about the city and was ready for a change from my small hometown in Pennsylvania. I’d never seen homelessness like I did when I arrived in Portland – a small city to many people, but the biggest I’ve ever lived in. It was heartbreaking to see, but many aspects of it were also really inspiring to me: this was a community that had their own newspaper covering issues relevant to them, a self-governing tent city (this was the early days of Dignity Village), and so many incredibly nonprofits working to help folks move out of homelessness. I had arrived here with a shiny new degree in journalism and international relations, but no idea what I wanted to do as a career, until I started looking into some of these nonprofits – Transition Projects in particular caught my attention as a space with a huge array of services to support folks experiencing homelessness, and I wanted to be a part of that work. I actually applied to be the volunteer coordinator at Transition Projects in 2004, but I had zero nonprofit experience, and I didn’t get the job. I was lucky to learn about the AmeriCorps program, and after being accepted in that program, worked with another nonprofit developing a volunteer program for an after-school program. That experience was enough to land me the Transition Projects job when it came open again, in 2006. It’s been such a joy to work here and help folks connect with ways to support their neighbors experiencing homelessness. Portlanders have such a spirit of service – it’s more rewarding than you can imagine to spend 40 hours a week working with people who see problems in their city, and want to give their time to help.

When volunteers cook a meal, lead a program, or offer mentorship at a Transition Projects shelter, how does this impact the residents?

Volunteers support our work across most of our programs – providing meals to our shelters, getting mail for participants in our resource center, sorting donations and restocking clothing rooms, leading shelter groups and activities. It allows us to accomplish so much more than we could otherwise! Fiscal and staffing benefits aside, though, I’ve always felt that the true impact of our volunteers’ time is in the connection to our participants. Folks I’ve talked to – especially those who have spent time actually living on the streets – describe how dehumanizing it is to be out there. The way that all too many passers-by don’t engage, don’t make eye contact, don’t say hello as they might to other folks they walk past; people living on the streets see that, they feel it, and it takes its toll and leads to a feeling of invisibility, of being other or less-than. In our programs, though, where participants can connect with community members who are coming in and volunteering their time to support them, engaging in compassionate conversations, they start to feel less invisible.

How have the lifestyle changes and safety precautions that the pandemic has created affected community action and volunteership?

It’s definitely been an interesting couple of years! In the initial wave of the pandemic in spring of 2020, there was a significant (and completely understandable) decline in volunteering as most folks sheltered in place, and particularly as a lot of retirement-age people (who make up a significant percentage of the volunteer base for a lot of organizations) avoided putting themselves at risk. Within just a few months, though, we saw a remarkable upswing in service. Just as an example, in August 2019, we had a total of 92 meals provided across our 7 shelters; in August 2020, that number was up to 185! So many new community members were reaching out that summer to find out how they could help, and that increased level of service didn’t fizzle out quickly, either – August 2021 saw an almost identical level of service, with 184 meals provided by volunteers. Maybe part of this surge of volunteer service was people seeking a social outlet after the isolation of sheltering in place, but I think what it really comes down to is that Portland is a community full of people who step up in a crisis, whose compassion drives them to do whatever they can to try to make things better in a bad situation.

In your free time, where do you find community and belonging?

Mostly through my own volunteering – it’s a fantastic way to meet people who care about the same things you do! I spend a couple mornings every week serving breakfast at the Blanchet House, which provides free meals to anyone in need six days a week and has a really great community of staff and volunteers who have become good friends over the years I’ve served there. Transition Projects works with a similar population, but my role is very behind the scenes so it’s nice to do something more direct-service in my free time. I also just finished volunteering with a beaver survey team with the Johnson Creek Watershed Council, and that was amazing, getting to connect with other folks who feel as passionately as I do about protecting the incredible natural spaces we have here in Portland. (And who finds it as exciting as I do to see beaver dams and lodges along the creeks here in southeast!)

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in volunteering for the first time?

Think about the issues you care the most about, and do some research on the organizations doing work in those fields. They’re all going to have different ways for people to get involved, so make sure you know what you want to get out of volunteering. Volunteering is about giving something back, certainly, but it’s never one-sided – volunteer work should be rewarding for you, too. Will you be happy to do something behind the scenes that supports the bigger mission, or do you want a chance to do something more direct-service, engaging with the people/animals/environment you want to support? Do you want to be onsite where the magic happens, or a role you can do from home? Do you want a regular, weekly shift, or something you can sign up for occasionally when you have time? The right volunteer role is out there for everyone who’s passionate about making a difference, and there’s no shortage of amazing nonprofits in Portland looking for help!