The community’s helping hand

Inter-Faith Treasure House marks four decades in C-W

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Volunteer Barbara Gray sorts clothing donated to the Inter-Faith Treasure House in Washougal. The Vancouver resident has given her time to the local organization, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary on Saturday, for the past 12 years.

The Inter-Faith Treasure House began as a true grass roots effort that sprouted and grew over four decades to become an organization that today impacts the lives of thousands of people each year.

The Treasure House first opened its doors in 1970, when members of a group of local churches got together to form the organization as it recognized the need in the community. That first year, a total of $1,227 in outreach was distributed to the community.

First located inside St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Camas, over the years the Treasure House hopped around to several different locations, primarily in the downtown Camas area.

With the help of a $255,000 Community Development Block Grant, it was in 1996 that the leap was made to purchase the building at 91 “C” St., in Washougal. After buying the 13,400-square-foot structure from the Port of Camas-Washougal, it was completely remodeled. Today it includes Treasure House offices, thrift store, and storage and warehouse area for food and other supplies.

“That was a big leap for that board because they had always been in small rented quarters,” said Nancy Wilson, executive director. “We had a few board members leave because they didn’t think it would work. It was a big change, but we’re successful.”

As the facility has grown over the years, so has its service area and impact. In 2009 the organization provided nearly $1 million in outreach services to the community, ranging from food boxes and emergency rent assistance to the Lost & Found Cafe and the Christmas gift program.

To some that number might seem almost unbelievable, but according to Wilson the people truly in need in Camas and Washougal often go unnoticed.

“You don’t see our homeless, like you do on the streets of downtown Portland,” she said. “Ours are hidden in cars in driveways, under bridges, and living in tents in backyards. There’s a lot of couch surfing that goes on around here.”

Wilson knows what she speaks. She has been the executive director of the Treasure House for 16 years. She began volunteering for the organization when she was a stay-at-home mom.

After realizing some leadership was needed, she decided to go back to school so that she could step forward and provide it. Wilson earned a degree from Lewis and Clark College in public administration for non-profit organizations. The Treasure House was the focus of several of Wilson’s group class projects.

“I got my degree, and the Treasure House got the benefit of a lot of students’ work,” she said.

With only three paid employees, including Wilson and two part-time workers, the Treasure House relies heavily on its volunteer force, which is now 200 people strong.

“We have a lot of great volunteers,” Wilson said. “The senior citizens are very reliable. They take it very seriously. We couldn’t do it without them.”

Some of those seniors include Bill Jessett, Treasure House executive board vice president and food administrator who has donated his services since 1985; Faye Schanilec who is at the Treasure House six days a week sorting the food donations that come through the door; and Barbara Gray who has volunteered for 12 years.

“I just felt I needed something to do, something to keep me busy,” Gray said of her reasons for volunteering. “I thought this sounded really worthwhile. I’ve met some really neat people and I think it’s nice to give back to the community in any way whatsoever.”

In addition to its volunteers, the Treasure House counts on the generosity of individuals who contribute food and clothing. Collection efforts such as Walk and Knock and Stuff the Bus provide an incredible boost.

There are also local businesses including Wal-Mart, QFC and Fred Meyer, which on a regular basis donate a variety of goods ranging from meat, dairy, produce and baked goods. Safeway offers its bakery bread.

“Our community has been really good in supporting us with food,” Wilson said. “That is very much appreciated.”

Treasure House also receives food from the Clark County Food Bank and the Oregon Food Bank, in addition to purchasing food with its own funding.

Food for the needy is where the Treasure House makes its greatest impact. From June 2009 to June 2010, the Treasure House gave away 642,261 pounds of food. Each month, it feeds 2,000 hungry people in the Camas-Washougal community through programs including food boxes, United States Department of Agriculture Food Commodities, the Harvest Share fresh produce program, and Lost & Found Cafe, which offers a free hot meal to anyone Mondays and Thursdays at Zion Lutheran Church in Camas.

Glancing down at a white piece of paper on her desk imprinted with the Treasure House emblem, an outstretched hand holding in its palm a family of four, Wilson said the organization with simple, modest beginnings has become irreplaceable, with its roots firmly established in the community.

“If the Treasure House wasn’t here, our homeless might not stay hidden,” Wilson said. “Your homeless people might end up being your neighbors. People would be living without electricity. Like our logo, it’s the “helping hand.”