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Russell institutions introduce themselves


At a meeting of the Russell Neighborhood Association held last month, member Holly Nelson, left, listens to new Russell Academy of Academic Achievement Principal Debbie Ebert update the association on Russell Academy news, events, volunteer opportunities and issues. Ebert represented one of four Russell neighborhood institutions speaking at the meeting. Western States Chiropractic College, Shepherd’s Door homeless women and children’s shelter and Eastminster Presbyterian Church were the others.
According to city officials, some of the most common and bitter complaints involve institutions and their immediate neighbors. Last month’s Russell Neighborhood Association meeting was not devoted to complaints, though, but instead to four institutions that most communities would be proud to have as neighbors — Western States Chiropractic College, Russell Academy, Shepherd’s Door and Eastminster Presbyterian Church.

This topic, plus a mailing to every household in the neighborhood, paid for by a grant, boosted membership at last month’s meeting, usually lightly-attended, to 25 people.

David Wickes, executive vice president of Western States Chiropractic College, said that the institution is the second oldest of its kind in the United States, having been established in 1904. It took over its current location, the former Catholic high school Marycrest, at 2900 N.E. 132nd Ave., in 1980. In addition to its four-year degree programs, it also provides training in massage therapy, the only such course in Portland taught by an accredited college, he said. The school also helps make Portland the only U.S. city that has accredited schools providing training in chiropractic, naturopathy and oriental medicine.

The average age of the 426 students is 27. “They’ve done their undergraduate work and have finished with that phase of their lives,” he said, “and they are a nice group of young people for the most part.”

Perhaps, but they aren’t perfect. Spencer Wesslinger, a resident of Northeast 132nd Avenue, asked Wickes to restore signs the school used to post asking students and staff to be considerate of neighbors. “I’ve seen staff and students drive out of here and go speeding down the street,” he said. Residents are seeking to install speed bumps on the street, Wesslinger said.

“I’m aware that some people who come here exceed the speed limit,” Wickes replied. “I’m aware also that some people who are not connected with the college speed by here. The other day I was almost run off the road by a school bus.” The school charges for regular on-site parking by students, he said, thus encouraging them to get to school by means other than single-occupant vehicles. However, he said, bus service in the neighborhood is not particularly good.

Russell Chair Bonny McKnight pointed out that the college had helped obtain speed bumps for Northeast Morris Street. Another resident said, “I’ve lived here 30 years, and these people are good neighbors.”

The college has also been a good provider. It has an outpatient clinic on campus and is planning to move it to new quarters at Northeast Airport Way and 122nd Avenue. It also has a clinic on West Burnside Street where it provides “indigent care for people who have little or no health insurance,” he said. The college has also lent its expertise to help start schools in other states and other countries.

Another guest, Debbie Ebert, is trying to fill a large pair of shoes. This year she replaced the popular Jeff Rose, who moved to district headquarters, as principal of Russell Academy. Fortunately for her she is not totally new to the school, having served on the faculty for four years.

“I couldn’t imagine becoming the principal at a school I didn’t know,” she told the Russell Neighborhood Association. As it is, “The transition has been fantastic,” she said.

At 430 students, the school is “at the absolute breaking point in terms of numbers,” she said. For 35 percent of these students, English is not their native tongue, and 17 other languages are spoken there. They all wear similar clothes, a school requirement. Nonetheless, many students transfer there from elsewhere. “Children come here because they want to,” Ebert said.

The school is about to embark on a new venture. Following other schools in the Parkrose district, Russell will be part of the Safer Routes to School program. To start with on Oct. 3, it will participate in the annual Walk or Bike to School Day, accompanied by adult chaperons. For 10 days this month, the fourth and fifth grades will have bike-riding lessons. The second and third grades will receive pedestrian safety classes. The kindergarten and first grade will be taught how to sit in a car seat.

There are also roles for adults — city and school staff plus parents. Ebert will assemble a committee composed of all three. This group will identify the safest walking and biking routes to school; members will also pinpoint obstacles that make coming to school less safe (Wesslinger noted that 32 school-age children live on Northeast 132nd Avenue, which has only two blocks of paved sidewalks), and they will attempt to install improvements to remedy the problems.

“Our school buses are overcrowded with three children to a seat, and we haven’t even had a rainy day yet,” Ebert said. “Some children come from some distance away, but there are quite a few who could be biking or walking.”

Jan Marshall, the program director at the Shepherd’s Door shelter for homeless women and children, near Northeast Halsey Street on 132nd Avenue, had been a guest at Russell meetings before. McKnight said that when the parent agency, the Portland Rescue Mission, proposed to build the facility, many neighbors were nervous. However, she added, “It was built with sensitivity, with the neighborhood in mind, and does not look like an institution.” It has never been a source of problems, she said.

“Thanks for letting us be your neighbor,” Marshall responded. The design meets Shepherd’s Door’s needs as well as Russell’s, she said. “Our clients don’t need an institution; they need a home.” Most were abused or abandoned as children, and they are “grieving and broken, and they will be scarred for the rest of their lives. In 37 years I’ve never met a homeless woman who had a good relationship with her father.”

In response to this abuse, women adopt “survival behavior” that interferes with their success in life. The facility staff practices a combination of positive enforcement and tough love to make a fundamental personality change. “We tell them, ‘We love you, but we don’t love your behavior,’” Marshall said. “We tell them, ‘You are a good person.’ When they believe that, the bad behavior stops.”

Christie, a client for the past six months, testified to the program’s success; a Centennial School District student, she said, “I was in and out of prison. I was an addict. I thought my life was over.” When first admitted, “I thought I would just manipulate the system by telling them what they wanted to hear; I was good at that. After four weeks they confronted me and said, ‘Either embrace the program or get out.’ They also told me they loved the person I could become,” she said. Christie now regularly attends church and babysits for other parishioners. “Six months ago no one would have trusted me with a goldfish,” she said. The program “isn’t easy, but it saves lives.”

Marshall said Portland Rescue Mission is seeking space for a men’s recovery program. When asked by McKnight if they had sought help from Erik Sten, the city commissioner most concerned with homeless issues, Marshall asked, “Who?” She added that simply providing more housing would not solve the problem of homelessness. “A home doesn’t heal a heart,” she said.

The last speaker, Pastor Byron Heron of Eastminster Presbyterian Church, came seeking help. “We don’t have much program to offer you now,” he told Russell. Formed in 1954, with a congregation that once numbered 400, the church now has barely 50 aging members. As the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood changed, “The church was unable to adjust,” he said. If the current situation can’t be changed in the next two or three years, the church will probably close. Heron is seeking ways for it to once again be vital and relevant.

“Right now, I’m doing a lot of listening,” he said.
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