Ashland Runs on Volunteers: Showing holiday spirit by helping those most in need — year-round

There are sure signs of the holiday season now: Handel’s "Messiah." Bad and insistent Christmas songs at the mall. Requests for donations from every charity to which I’ve ever given money. But if doing good and recognizing the spirit of the holidays are associated, that is most especially true, not for the Metropolitan Museum of Art or even the World Wildlife Fund, but for an organization like Ashland Community Resource Center (ACRC), which seeks to meet the needs of the poor and the homeless in our community.

ACRC was created about two years ago, through the cooperative efforts of two existing organizations, Aging Community Coordinated Enterprises & Supportive Services (ACCESS) and Options for Homeless Residents of Ashland (OHRA), midwifed by the city of Ashland. ACRC relies on the services of ACCESS to manage its finances and other “backroom” operations and of OHRA to help guide and plan its operations.

Since its founding, ACRC has served more than 1,200 unique individuals, including about 100 families. Sometimes it can help prevent homelessness by working with individuals to provide funds to prevent a looming eviction or to avoid a utility shutoff.

For those who are homeless, it provides goods to meet basic needs for survival: sleeping bags, ponchos, boots; clothing and basic food. It also provides a variety of services to those who come to its location (572 Clover Lane).

The staff and volunteers helps these guests (as they call them) fill out needed paperwork to apply for any income based housing for which they are eligible. They guide them through the process of signing up for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and for health benefits through the Oregon Health Plan.

They help guests who are veterans to access veterans’ benefits. They seek to match guests with jobs that may be available (and work to develop employment opportunities with local business or citizens), and work with them on drafting resumes and practicing the skills for job interviewing. ACRC also has facilities where they can shower and launder their clothes and provides them with a mailing address.

ACRC has limited staff, led by Leigh Madsen. Leigh’s commitment to the guests and enthusiasm for helping them shine through in everything he says. It goes back to his childhood. His family was not wealthy, but whenever someone at need came to the door, his mother always found more room at the table. In her — and his — words and actions, no one deserves to be hungry.

So what would you be doing if you volunteered with ACRC? You would greet guests as they come in and, if they are new, walk them through an intake interview to determine what their needs are. You would be helping the guests with all the kinds of tasks enumerated above. You also may do any of a range of other tasks that arise. Some people need birth certificates and volunteers track down the agency from which they need to get them. One volunteer helped a guest who needed a replacement for his truck by walking him through Craig’s List to find a likely purchase and then driving him to the site where the guest completed the transaction.

But more than these specific tasks, perhaps, you would be there for them. You would develop a relationship with them where they would feel acknowledged as a person and, thus, of value. That connection and acknowledgment, Leigh notes, is the grounding out of which the particular tasks develop meaning. They can break through the protective shell that someone who has been living on the streets may develop. He mentioned one man who had been homeless for eight years. He came to ACRC daily for three months and only then was ready to say, “Can you help me get off the street?”

Some of the tasks require some training (many of us aren’t comfortable working through forms from bureaucracies the first time), but there are materials to help new volunteers and Tina Stevens will work individually with volunteers to train them and new volunteers can work under the guidance of Tina or experienced volunteers until they are comfortably up to speed. It is desirable that volunteers come on a regular schedule so that they and the guests develop the relationships that are so valuable. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.

This isn’t a volunteer opportunity for everybody. The ACRC, even early in the morning when I was there, is a place of reasonably controlled chaos. It is noisy as many conversations occur in a single large room. And not everyone is going to find it easy or natural to be open and non-judgmental to homeless people. Not everyone can say, as Leigh does, “Someone walks in the door and says, ‘I’m hungry!’ I don’t get to choose. They all have value and they are all God’s children.” Towards the end of our interview, he suggested that anyone who wants to get a sense of whether this is a place for him or her should simply drop by and watch for a couple of hours. If you’d like to talk about it a bit first, you can call the general number, 541-631-2235, or Leigh’s cell number, 541-840-3987.

Mary I. Coombs’ column on local nonprofit organizations appears every three weeks. Email questions and suggestions to

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