A conversation about the struggles that folks go through while trying to make ends meet takes 70-year-old Sharon Thornberry back to June 1979.
A woman in her 20s with two young children, she reached the point of homelessness while living in Texas. Her husband, a troubled postwar veteran who had served in Vietnam, had his own issues and left the family.
There were nights sleeping on people’s couches and she even camped out in the old house from which they had been evicted. The two children, at least, could stay overnight with her husband’s sister, but Thornberry herself was not invited in.
Those were dark days and the beginning of what would become a new life. Today, Thornberry is a respected and accomplished force in efforts to offer assistance services to those who need them.
Last week, she started her new job as the executive director at Philomath Community Services.
Thornberry has had a strong connection with the local organization all the way back to the nonprofit’s founding, helping Don Anderson in 1991 with the 501(c)(3) approval process. She later served as the PCS board chair from 1998-2003 and was instrumental in the food bank finding a new home. The ground-breaking for the organization’s current location occurred in July 2000 and volunteers were operating out of the building by the following year.
Thornberry’s work history includes extensive experience with getting organizations into buildings and establishing relationships with key people along the way, such as funders.
PCS and its need for a new home
“One of the reasons this board hired me is because we’ve outgrown this building,” Thornberry said during an interview earlier this week. “This was great when we built it but there is not enough space for the programs that we have here. The gleaners do such a fabulous job but they need a good space to do it in and to do food distribution and we’re bursting at the seams here.”
PCS, located at 360 S. Ninth St., serves as the umbrella organization for Philomath Food Bank, Philomath Community Gleaners, June’s Kids Kloset, Lupe’s Community Garden and Holiday Cheer.
Thornberry said Philomath Community Services is getting ready to start looking for a new home.
“Before we start applying (for funding), we need to have a strategic plan, we need to really be able to tell the story of the people that walk through our doors,” she said. “Funders want you to tell the story of who you’re serving and be able to give them demographics and all of those things, so that’s part of it.”
Philomath Community Services is not only working out of a cramped space but will also soon be losing a significant portion of its parking lot with part of it situated on city property. The city will soon begin construction on a new water treatment plant.
Thornberry said that when ED and Harriet Hughes gifted the property that the building sits on, the agreement stipulated that PCS could sell it in the future, if needed.
“The biggest challenge is where is there a space?” Thornberry said. “We’re at about 4,800 square feet here and I think we’ll need at least 10,000 square feet to accommodate all of the programs.”
She later added, “It would be a lot more respectful to our volunteers to have the right kind of space and the right kind of equipment to do the job.”
Additional space would also help with accommodating the health navigator’s weekly visits, lining up a veteran services representative on a regular basis and even offering clinic-type services in a private space.
“People need foot care and they can’t afford it and they don’t know where to turn for it … that’s huge — the health challenges people have,” Thornberry said as an example.
A more accessible location for the people they serve would be welcomed as well.
“We have to figure out within a strategic plan exactly what our goals are and then figure out how we make that happen,” she said.
A single mother’s many challenges
Through her experiences, Thornberry can identify with the types of struggles seen among those who utilize the services of the organization she now leads. In addition to the stretch of homelessness, there were times in her life when food stamps, free school meals, daycare assistance and other programs played an important role in her ability to overcome hardship.
“At the time I was homeless and then came out of being homeless, you could get a minimum wage job and work your way out of poverty,” she said. “(Today), a minimum wage job isn’t going to get you out of poverty — it’s not a living wage. People expect you to pull yourself up by the bootstraps but there’s no bootstraps to pull on anymore.”
Thornberry was born in Iowa and at age 10 moved with her family to eastern North Carolina.
“I didn’t grow up with a whole lot, you know, hand-me-down clothes and my mother made clothes,” she said. “We were farmers and there were times when it got really tough … it was just part of my growing up.”
As a young mother herself ending up in the circumstance of having nowhere to live in the summer of 1979, Thornberry eventually got enough resources together to buy bus tickets. She and the kids headed to North Carolina to stay with her parents. At the time, an attempt to receive benefits ended with her walking out of the office.
“I went into the welfare office to apply for assistance and the woman that was there said to me, and I’ll never forget it, she put her hand on my knee and she said, ‘sweetheart, I know your mother and nice white girls don’t get welfare … you need to go back to your husband,’” Thornberry said. “My father took me to the bank to borrow money for a car, like $600, and the banker said the same thing — you need to go back to your husband. It was 1979 and it was a different world …. It was hard to even get a credit card at that point as a single woman.”
Thornberry started networking and found a part-time job at a grocery store. Within a month, she was working full-time for something in the vicinity of $3.50 per hour, but it was money and the job had full medical benefits.
“Over six years’ time, I moved to the top of the pay scale and never got into management but was a lead clerk,” she said. “It gave me skills in the grocery industry that I never would have gotten anywhere else and that has been really useful in my food bank career.”
At the time when she moved out of her parents’ home, Thornberry again applied for assistance and qualified to help fill financial gaps. She and the children received benefits for four years, although food stamps were used for only six months because she said her grocery store employer did not look favorably upon people who received such assistance.
A move to Oregon and a new beginning
Thornberry later got remarried and a level of economic stability returned with two adults in the household. Her husband had connections to Oregon and in 1985, they made the move.
“When we first came here in 1985, things were tough,” she said. “We moved from North Carolina and my husband was on disability and I was looking for work. I went to get a food box from Nancy Flegal at the little food bank building over on 19th Street. That was my first interaction with these programs.”
In the following months, Thornberry started to get involved with assistance programs. She joined Community Services Consortium as a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteer and 14 months later, became the gleaning and volunteer coordinator. For the next 11 years, she worked with gleaning groups in this immediate vicinity as well as across the state.
Thornberry served with the Oregon Hunger Task Force for 16 years, on the board of the Community Food Security Coalition for six years, including president for three years, and on the board of Bread for the World and Bread for the World Institute from 2009-14 and 2016-21. Various awards and recognition followed for her work and she’s been associated with other efforts through the years, including a stretch with Linn-Benton Food Share.
For a quarter of a century, she worked for Oregon Food Bank with a focus on rural food systems and is the creator of FEAST — a community food systems organizing program. She even authored a chapter in “A Place at the Table,” which served as the basis for a 2012 documentary.
In 2015, Thornberry went to work in the Columbia River Gorge area to redevelop a regional food bank for Wasco, Hood River and Sherman counties. Efforts led to the opening of the Columbia Gorge Food Bank and an expansion of hunger relief efforts. After 32 years in Philomath, she relocated to The Dalles in 2017 to become more connected to that community.
Thornberry retired from Oregon Food Bank this past July, returned to town and started her position with Philomath Community Services on Sept. 11.