PORTLAND, Ore. - When Seth Reams, 34, lost his job as concierge of The Louisa apartments in Northwest Portland in December, the downturn in the economy became real.
He sent out more than 300 resumes. No one responded.
The loss of income was hard, but the greatest blow was to his self-esteem, “because I wasn’t bringing any money in and I felt useless,” Reams said. “I felt like I wasn’t a member of society anymore, like I wasn’t contributing to this household anymore.”
Reams’ girlfriend, Michelle King, 37, would come home from her job at Providence Health Plan, where she works as an assistant administrator analyst, and find Reams drained from a day on the computer looking for a job.
“His self-worth was just going down the toilet,” King said.
That was when King suggested Reams take a break from his job hunt by volunteering at the Audubon Society of Portland, if just for a few hours. The couple are avid birders.
Their conversation quickly turned to how many people are unemployed in Oregon and how many people are in the same situation. Reams and King wondered how to gather all the unemployed people together.
Their blog, We’ve Got Time To Help, was born. It serves as the interactive heart of a rapidly growing volunteer organization that matches volunteers with those in need.
Things happened fast. Reams never did spend that day at the audubon society. Instead, a week after starting the blog in late January, he found himself working on We’ve Got Time to Help’s first project ― moving furniture and other household items and clothing into the Southeast Portland home of a single, pregnant woman who had custody of her three siblings.
From zero to hero
Since that first project, We’ve Got Time To Help (WGTTH) has taken on more than 60 such tasks ― from the repair and painting of a room for a local day shelter for battered women and their children to the removal of blackberries and dangerous trees from the overgrown yard of a home that had been trashed by renters ― all with the help of its growing list of more than 100 volunteers.
Ellen Lubrano, volunteer coordinator for Rose Haven, the Northwest Portland women’s shelter that was helped by WGTTH, first heard about the organization on the radio and e-mailed them.
The room that WGTTH painted is used as a quiet space where advocates and women clients can meet. Rose Haven’s volunteers were too busy to do the painting themselves.
“I was very glad to have them come by and help,” Lubrano said. “Overall, it was a wonderful job and a great experience and the room is ready to be used, so that was the idea.”
Cause comes at a cost
We’ve Got Time to Help finds people who need help via its blog, occasional Craigslist postings (under “General” and “Volunteers”) and, as Reams says, anywhere they think they “might be able to reach a large group of people.”
“The response was just amazing,” King said about the number of people who’ve stepped up to help out.
But the project has come at a cost for the couple.
To make ends meet, Reams and King have, in Reams’ words, “had to cut back in every facet of living.” They can sometimes make it on King’s income alone, but there have been many times when they’ve had to dip into their savings. Meanwhile, Reams continues to look for a job.
“Just like a lot of Americans,” Reams said, “we were living much too extravagantly when we both had jobs; and now that I am not working, it's coming back to haunt us. Our story is the same as many.”
Some of the projects have required money that Reams and King have had to come up with. They have never asked for money from their volunteers or the people they’re helping, although a couple of people have donated money to the organization.
To bring is some needed cash, Reams and King have sold a few household items on Craigslist, and Reams sells suet (bird food) to raise money for WGTTH projects.
Still they think the sacrifices have been worth it – especially in how the work has affected his outlook.
“It’s turned around 180 degrees,” Reams said. “I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile. I’m busy every day with calls and e-mails and projects. It’s re-instilled a faith in humanity.”
King experienced a similar effect.
“I’m a lot busier than I used to be,” she said with a touch of humor, before adding, “I see the good in people now.”
Media spreads message
Although it started out as way to connect unemployed volunteers with those in need, WGTTH has grown into much more than that. Today, the volunteers include retirees, small-business owners and stay-at-home moms.
Media attention has helped spread the word. The organization has been featured on radio, on KBOO’s "Bread and Roses" program and Oregon Public Broadcasting's "Think Out Loud," as well as in The Chronicle of Philanthropy newspaper and on local blogs. In just a few days (May 8), WGTTH is going to be featured in a new Portland newspaper, The Portland Upside, a print and online publication that features positive stories about Portland.
The media coverage, “has allowed us to get the word out to people that need help,” said Reams, “to let people know that there is someone out there who cares about them, even if we don't know them, and is willing to take some time to give them a hand.”
In addition, the media has alerted potential volunteers to the fact that they are needed and “allows people to trust us a little more. It lets them know that we aren't a scam or out to get them in some way,” Reams said.
Know your neighbor
Looking back, one thing Reams has learned from the whole experience is that “there are so many people out there who are willing to help, willing to step out of their lives and their homes to help their neighbors, their community and their city. I think that’s probably the most positive lesson that I’ve learned.”
His ultimate goal for We’ve Got Time to Help is to strengthen communities so the organization is no longer needed and people can “rely on their neighbors, friends and families for things they need.”
More volunteers are needed, including plumbers, roofers and electricians, as well as people willing to get dirty or pick up a shovel or hammer. For more information, call (503) 953-6018, or head to We've Got Time to Help