The Multnomah County Commission on Economic Dignity presented the “Heroes Inspiring Leadership, Learning Teamwork, Opportunity and Pride – the HILLTOP Award” to three people for their efforts to reduce poverty. 

Jenessa Colina of Our Just Future,(formerly Human Solutions), and Department of County Human Services employees Diana Hall and Ellie Martin received the awards for their “extraordinary capacity and caring in helping individuals, families, and communities to resolve the issue of poverty.” 

The award is intended to honor work in a variety of settings or with a diversity of population groups – youth, elders, people with disabilities, and families.

Jenessa Colina
Janessa Colina: An Advocate in their corner

Janessa Colina has spent the last eight years advocating for individuals and families for the nonprofit Our Just Future, working to prevent people from being evicted from their homes by providing rent assistance. She has also helped unhoused people return to housing by helping them access food and utility assistance, job training, and other support services.

“Janessa is patient and kind no matter the situation and is incredibly persistent in helping families achieve their goals’’ wrote Chantelle Brown in her letter nominating Colina. “ Through her interactions with landlords and property managers and partners, she sees and helps others see how people get stuck in situations — even when they are trying incredibly hard.

Colina said she was inspired to do this work because, “I know that small positive actions done by myself and others, makes true positive changes in the community and has a lasting impact. 

“I have overcome many struggles, and I understand what it feels like to need help. I want to be there for people in a way that is trauma-informed, positive, and that stokes some hope in themselves and their situation. Also, Our Just Future is a supportive and wonderful place to grow professionally. It is through OJF, that I am able to live out my dream of being involved in positive change here, in my hometown.”

Colina had been working at Portland Community College helping connect students to jobs when she realized many of the students faced far more immediate problems than not having a proper resume: they were living in cars, about to have their utilities shut off, or needed food and necessities.

Colina decided to work full time navigating obstacles alongside clients and connecting people to the services that would make a difference.

“She helps community members develop empathy and patience for the individuals and families she serves by encouraging them to give people a chance without punitive measures,’’ Brown wrote in the nomination. She also doesn’t “hesitate to push back on systems that are dismissive or even discriminating against participants.’’

"A lot of times people need someone in their corner because in the world of leasing and contracts and management companies, I know how to approach a landlord and how things work and the average person doesn’t,’’ she said. She works to build trust with clients and a cooperative, working relationship with property owners.

Colina told the Board when she first was contacted about the HILLTOP award, she thought it was spam. And she immediately credited her co-workers for “helping me have the strength to get up and do this hard work every day.’’

But she also said the most important help she offers is hope.

“Being homeless or about to lose your home can feel like the lowest point in your life. Having someone say, “this isn’t the end of the road, we are going to work together to find housing can literally turn things around.

If someone sees them and believes in them, they start believing in themselves. Seeing that they are valued changes families and that changes communities.’’

“We are incredibly grateful for all you do, Janessa,’’ Commissioner Stegman said.

She has remained working for Our Just Future because the tight-knit and long-serving staff share that commitment. She is moving to a new quality assurance and data position with the non-profit, to help support infrastructure and knows the team she trained and worked with will continue to do their best for the families served.

“It’s been a heart-led endeavor,’’ Colina said. “That for me has been the most important thing, just the human-to-human connection, that I see you and your situation, and I want to help.’’

Diana Hall
Diana Hall
Diana Hall: Helping wherever she can be of service

As a senior system and policy analyst for the Youth and Family Services Division of the County’s Department of County Human Services, Diana Hall supports program development, project management, planning, and policy. 

Most recently during the pandemic, that has meant Hall jumping in wherever her skills could be of service. 

“Diana has stepped up in so many different ways during the pandemic,’’ said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, noting she worked on everything from planning a new home cooling program, rent assistance, and economic recovery programs, to purchasing groceries for folks who had to quarantine due to testing positive for COVID and processing rent assistance applications. 

“Diana has used her skills and experience to welcome, support, and help with the development of new employees. Her professionalism and 'can-do attitude' provides reassurance too,’’ said Tamika Collins, who nominated Hall on behalf of the Housing Stability Team.

“What I love about my position is that I get to lend my support to a wide variety of programs and work with incredible colleagues in different teams,’’ Hall said.

Hall joined Multnomah County in 1999 to be part of a new partnership that came out of a community-building initiative and was an exciting blend of my interests and experience in social services and education. That collaboration was SUN Community Schools. The county's focus on alleviating poverty and contributing toward racial equity and educational success for all our community members drew her to the County at that time.

“The people - both at the County and in our partner organizations - and the sense of community, have kept me here and passionate about this work.”

Hall learned about giving early, raised by parents who were very involved in volunteering in the community and bringing people together to strengthen public resources (like parks and libraries) and support restorative approaches to conflicts. 

“Our house was a gathering place for friends and neighbors. Growing up with their example and that of other mentors who led community organizations, instilled in me a strong value for service, community building, and teamwork,’’

Participating in children's theater throughout my childhood gave her comfort with communication and improvisation that has helped her connect to others, adapt to changing situations — and have fun. 

Working in the nonprofit sector and local community centers before she came to the County taught her about the wisdom of our communities and youth, racial inequities, resilience, program design, and engagement.’’

She said the lesson of her career has been seeing “the amazing things we can accomplish when we harness our collective power and abilities. The importance and power of love in our work.”

Hall told the Board she’s had such great fortune for over 20 years to get to work with the County and do things that "people largely don’t think County and governments do: which is build community and really create an impact for our families."

She said the lesson of her career has been seeing “the amazing things we can accomplish when we harness our collective power and abilities. The importance and power of love in our work.”

Ellie Martin
Ellie Martin
Ellie Martin: creating partnerships with parents and families

Ellie Martin joined the Department of County Human Services to supervise a team of case managers who authorize Medicaid-funded supports for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Her first day of work in March 2020 was the day the Five Oak Building and most County offices shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 “It was wild, I didn’t meet my team in person for like a year.’’

But the distance supervision worked, in part because the team shares her passion for working with families of people with IQs below 75 or who have a developmental condition such as autism, Down Syndrome, or fetal alcohol syndrome. Some individuals they work with have high physical needs, requiring assistance to walk or bathe. Others have complex medical needs, such as requiring ventilators.

Throughout the long months of the shutdown, Martin watched as those families struggled to keep their children from being exposed to COVID and to work and provide support for them even as primary supports like schools shut down.

Many of the parents we work with have limited access to stable employment due to their child's unpredictable needs related to their disability. And adults with disabilities have extremely limited access to paid competitive and integrated employment.

“A lot of families are faced with a really difficult choice: putting their child in a group or foster home,’’ she said. But our system is unique in that we can authorize in-home supports, which means we can hire family members to be personal support workers.

At the Nov. 1 board meeting, Commissioner Sharon Meieran said, “thanks to people like Ellie, people in our community are able to rise above poverty and also create a sustainable life for themselves and their families. This is tremendous work.”

The team dedicated FTE to a housing coordinator so they can also request rental assistance for families in danger of losing their homes, and “we do that regularly,’’ Martin said. “We also have employment supports for people with IDD, it’s a population that has faced extreme barriers to employment. We authorize a lot of support so people can access paid and integrated employment with job coaches and employment prep.

“Coming to the County where we offer rental assistance and advocacy for federal grant funding has been a wonderful experience,’’ Martin said. “It can really financially stabilize families so they don’t have to make that difficult decision.”

A Georgia native who moved to Portland when her partner got a job here, Martin fell in love with the IDD population while teaching in the Portland Public Schools. She worked as a case manager in Washington County before moving to Multnomah County as a supervisor.

In nominating Martin for the HILLTOP award, co-worker Cortina Robinson said Martin raises the community’s consciousness of poverty by “breaking down the stigmas and what people think poverty looks like, bringing awareness to the very fact that many people live in poverty with full-time jobs that have “decent pay’’ due to inflation and price gouging on numerous levels.’’

“I have the most incredible team of service coordinators,’’ Martin told the Board. They just bring so many gifts and strengths to this population and they work so hard to support families and shepherd youth with intellectual and developmental disabilities into adulthood. She also thanked the leads on the team, and the team who launched Project Search to help provide people with internships. “People with disabilities face extreme barriers to employment and rarely have opportunities to earn income above the federal poverty line. So I am humbled by Multnomah County’s dedication to addressing those barriers.’’

For her part, Martin said she tries to be available to her team, to encourage them to take healthy risks and also set healthy boundaries — to look at this work as not customer service but as a partnership.

“I have learned that social institutions have tremendous power to pull people out of poverty. When organizations prioritize allocating resources and funding for people to meet their most basic needs, we allow them access to the services and supports we provide to meet a host of other needs. I have also learned that our work matters.”