Need some heating assistance? Help from the food bank? A reasonably priced lunch? A ride? Those and more are the types of connections provided by the community-themed organization for 50 years now. Serving Wallowa, Union, Baker and Grant counties, Community Connection started in Union County in 1969, spreading to Wallowa County sometime in the 1980s.
Wallowa County manager, Connie Guentert, started with the program in 2007. Although many know the agency for its senior citizen meal sites in Enterprise and Wallowa, Guentert noted, it’s more — extensively more.
“Public transportation has become one of our largest programs, if not the largest” Guentert said. “It’s amazing. We’ve provided public transportation for 20 years, and I still hear, ‘You have a bus?’”
Although the transportation mission is known for its public transport buses, it also provides medical transportation, which many are unaware of. However, senior nutrition is the focus of the agency.
“Senior nutrition will always be our flagship program,” Guentert said.
The programs the agency administers under the senior nutrition umbrella include Meals on Wheels and safety checks for seniors. Also on the list is quarterly nutrition education for seniors.
“We’ll talk about water, we’ll talk about vegetables, eating a balanced diet, exercise — all that make a nutritionally balanced person,” the director said. Every meal served must meet USDA nutritional standards and the two agency sites serve 60-75 meals per day between Enterprise, Wallowa and Joseph. That number will grow as 30 percent of the county population is older than 65.
A new venture that Guentert is excited about is partnering with Safe Harbors, Wallowa County’s organization dedicated to victims of domestic and sexual assault. The two agencies will work together to provide housing for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault.
“We’ve always assisted clients with our limited housing funds, but with this new partnership, the funds will be made available for three years,” Guentert said. She added that it will not take away from Community Connection funds.
How does the agency, limited in funding and personnel take on these new projects?
“We wear many hats,” Guentert said. “I try to think outside the box and work outside the box to make sure my clients are assisted, instead of staying in the box and saying no.” Sometimes, it’s the only answer.
“We can only afford to hire so many drivers or reimburse so many volunteer drivers,” she said. “When transport requests outweigh resources to meet the client’s needs, the staff take it personally.”
Much work is done by volunteers, numbering in the dozens, and are pertinent to the agency’s mission.
“If it weren’t for volunteers, we wouldn’t get done what we get done,” she said. For example, the Meals on Wheels program is all done by volunteers. Other volunteer-heavy programs include the tax preparation, Tai Chi classes, volunteer medical drivers, food servers and desk people. Volunteers are still needed.
“We’re always looking for some kind of volunteer,” the director said. “If someone wants to donate their time to our organization for services to this community, I don’t turn them away.”
For example, the senior nutrition programs at the Wallowa and Enterprise centers can always use help. Tax preparation helpers are a huge need.
Community Connection is a 501 ©(3) and donations are tax deductible. Neither the Wallowa or Enterprise food banks have dedicated funding and are completely reliant on donations. It gets shipments from the Oregon Food Bank once a month, but the agency pays for them, even if it’s pennies on the dollar.
Donations to the food bank are always appreciated as are senior heating help donations. That program is intended for seniors who don’t quite qualify for heating assistance because of their income and have difficulty paying their bills because of it.
Right now, donations are most urgently needed for sewer and water help for seniors as billing rates have gone up significantly in both Enterprise and Wallowa.
Other than cash flow, the biggest detriment to the agency’s mission are unrealistic expectations.
“A lot of times, we’re asked to be everything for everyone,” Guentert said. “Sometimes we’re really good at that, and sometimes we face challenges within ourselves for a time in knowing that we can’t. We want to do everything we can to assist our community. Every single staff person lives in this county. The people we help are our neighbors, friends and our family.”
Has the mission changed during Guentert’s tenure?
“No, I don’t think so,” she said. “I think our mission is all about community, family, self-sufficiency and assistance, whether it be low or moderate income families or seniors. I think that’s our mission.”
Guentert said community needs will determine future changes for the agency.
“We’ll always be open to creating new services or changing services to fit the needs of our counties,” she said. “We’re flexible, and I think it’s allowed the organization to be in place this long and still be going strong,” she said.