New chapter – Sheltering Silverton regroups following founder’s accident

September 2021 Posted in Community, News, Other, People

By Melissa Wagoner

Rob and Trish Ambrose, along with newly hired, Hannah Paysinger, make up Sheltering Silverton’s new case management team

When Sarah White created, and later became the director of, Sheltering Silverton – a resource center advocating for those who are homeless or in danger of becoming homeless – she already knew that someday she would leave the day-to-day operations for a more advisory position. 

“We had been working on an exit strategy that was going to take a year,” Hilary Dumitrescu, vice president of the organization’s board, said of the long-term plan she and White established.

Then, on the evening of June 29, all of that changed in an instant. White, who had offered her co-worker Joseph Schmaus a ride home from work, was involved in a head-on collision that very nearly took both their lives.

“We’re just so grateful she’s alive because it was a terrible accident,” Trish Ambrose said. She has volunteered for Sheltering Silverton alongside her husband Rob for the past three years. 

“But it’s going to be a recovery for her as well as for Joseph.”

With significant internal injuries and an ankle bone so pulverized her recovery has taken place via wheelchair, it wasn’t long before White realized resigning from her post would be the best decision for her personally and for the organization.

“Yesterday I formally resigned from my job as Director of Sheltering Silverton,” White wrote in a Facebook post on July 21, following those words up in an interview with Our Town by saying, “This was an obvious and necessary decision in the wake of a car accident that nearly killed my co-worker, Joseph and me. It is clear that I must remain focused on my own healing and cannot keep up with the demands of this work, especially as homelessness is increasing across the state. 

“I am sad to leave the work I love so much, but look forward to the opportunity this provides for other community members to get to know my houseless friends. 

“To my clients, I will miss working with you daily and I am forever changed by your beautiful souls.”

As difficult as White’s resignation was for her personally, it has been equally challenging for the staff of Sheltering Silverton, who effectively lost two coworkers in one day. 

“Sheltering Silverton went through what a lot of our clients go through,” Dumitrescu said. She noted that the loss of White came directly on the heels of another loss – that of the organization’s temporary home in a former tractor supply warehouse. That forced the organiation into its current, much smaller space, in the basement of the Silverton Community Center. 

“We lost our place and we went through an accident that left us with trauma and bills,” Dumitrescu said. “But the difference is, we have support so we were able to bounce back. If we didn’t have that, we would have closed.”

Instead, what was formerly a team of volunteers, quickly reconfigured, stepping in to fill the roles left by White and Schmaus. 

“It takes three of us to replace Sarah,” Trish said. Describing the way in which she, Rob and newly hired staff member Hannah Paysinger have jointly taken over the role of case manager in order to continue seamlessly serving clients. 

“I can’t say we’ve [replaced her] but we’re doing our best.”

Dumitrescu, too, has taken on a new position – that of interim executive director – until the role can be permanently filled. While no one is willing to go so far as to say that the changes have been for the better, it does appear, for the most part, to be business as usual. And that, according to Rob, has everything to do with White.

“Sarah did a phenomenal job of getting this all started and making relationships,” he said.

In fact, in the past two months Sheltering Silverton has provided aid to 62 clients – people who have never contacted the organization before – obtaining temporary shelter for several of them. That’s no mean feat in a place where the cost of housing is prohibitive.

“So many people are getting Social Security and it’s around $700,” Rob said of one of the most common barriers to obtaining permanent housing. “All of the subsidized housing has huge waiting lists, usually for years.”

But housing is far from the only issue. In fact, acting as a resource center, Sheltering Silverton staff spend an enormous amount of time helping clients fill out paperwork – for identification, veteran’s benefits, medical benefits and more. They also connect clients with other public assistance institutions like SACA. These services have had some success in keeping the state’s growing homelessness issue at bay.  

“I look at Portland and its incompetence,” Dumitrescu put forth, speculating that an area that size would be better served by numerous, community-based resource services, similar to Sheltering Silverton.

“What we do here is what we consider the most competent answer,” Dumitrescu said. “Local solutions are always better. It’s a slight mindset change but it makes all the difference.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, and with colder weather only weeks away, Sheltering Silverton’s job is about to get exponentially harder. 

“We are going to provide winter shelter in the healthiest way possible,” Dumitrescu hedged, noting that, with the pandemic continuing and a permanent warming shelter space still out of reach, the prospect of once again offering hotel vouchers to those needing emergency shelter is the best they can confidently offer. 

“Our vision for the future is to have year-around emergency shelter that has multiple rooms,” she said. For the past year Sheltering Silverton hasbeen seeking a building, knowing that with the number of crises affecting Oregonians in 2020, the number in need is bound to rise. 

“The issues are multiplying,” Trish said, “with the fire, the economy, COVID and the moratorium being lifted on evictions, most of our clients are new, which is really sobering.”

Which is why the ability for Sheltering Silverton to act quickly is of the utmost importance, as many of the issues they see compound over time. 

“There are so many people sitting so close to the edge over $1,000,” Dumitrescu said in a previous interview. “$1,000 would make a huge difference.”

Which is where monetary contributions from the community are key. 

“Direct financial giving allows us to pay rent, pay car insurance, cover emergency hotel stays for people leaving bad situations or struggling with a medical situation,” White pointed out. 

And that is what Sheltering Silverton plans to continue doing, no matter who is at the helm.

“Sarah is our Michael Jordan but the game is still being played,” Rob said.

White agrees.

“I am so excited about Sheltering Silverton’s future now, really more than ever,” she said. “I believe in our people – our staff, volunteers, our donors and community partners, and our clients. They are going to keep our organization moving forward with integrity and with kindness.”

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