Melissa Erlbaum

2021 Community Heroes - Clackamas Review - Clackamas County

Hometown: Oregon City

Why she is a Hero: As the Executive Director of Clackamas Women’s Services, Erlbaum is a driving force in fostering community care networks for survivors of interpersonal violence and their families.

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CHANGING THE GAME, STEP BY STEP

In a chemical reaction, a catalyst is the key component that changes things once added into the mix, helping to accelerate processes that may have otherwise taken much longer to come to fruition.

What better way to describe Clackamas Women’s Services Executive Director Melissa Erlbaum, who has been the catalyst in providing comprehensive services for survivors of domestic violence, sexual violence, elder abuse and more in Clackamas County from the moment she joined CWS as a program director in 2007.

In the roughly 14 years that Erlbaum has worked at CWS, the nonprofit’s staff has grown from 17 members to almost 50, and its annual budget has ballooned from $500,000 to more than $8 million. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Erlbaum has led the charge in developing and implementing numerous programs for survivors of abuse and their families, beginning by helping develop the county’s first-ever comprehensive housing program for survivors of abuse in 2007.

“Having to flee abuse and then becoming homeless as a result just compounds the trauma that folks are already experiencing,” Erlbaum said, noting that when she started working in the county, housing options for people experiencing houselessness were scarce.

The shelter operates under the Village Model, which Erlbaum helped design with the goal of fostering a community environment that tailors services to survivors’ unique needs and goals as they take control of their own healing journey.

“We started with just a few units of transitional housing back in 2007 and now we’re actually serving over 400 households a year,” Erlbaum said, adding that services are not limited to just housing, but cover multiple aspects of intrapersonal violence and abuse.

Erlbaum was instrumental in developing CWS’s Legal Empowerment Accelerator Program, which she describes as an “attorney incubator program” that makes affordable civil legal services accessible, while simultaneously training legal practitioners to work with those who have survived or are currently experiencing trauma.

“The program covers all of the overhead costs that a new attorney or solo practitioner may have in their first 18 months to two years,” Erlbaum said, adding that the participating attorneys also receive mentorship through the program. “It’s kind of a win-win for both the program and for the attorneys.”

Advocating for youth violence prevention programming is another of the many causes Erlbaum champions; she has also helped connect CWS to more than 25 schools in Clackamas County, educating students and helping schools meet the mandates of Erin’s Law, a statute requiring each K-12 school district in Oregon to implement sexual abuse prevention curricula.

“It kind of relieves that burden from the teacher, but also allows us to build that relationship with the school or that school district so that we can provide that continuum of support as well,” Erlbaum said.

To further serve the needs of youth who have been impacted by intrapersonal abuse, Erlbaum brought the Camp HOPE program to Oregon nearly seven years ago, providing an overnight summer camp at Camp Arra Wanna in Welches where youth members participate in a week of rafting, campfires and the full gamut of traditional camp activities while fostering a community that provides support through shared life experiences.

“The curriculum is really built around resiliency and helping young folks identify what their goals are, big or small, and then fostering the pathways to get them there,” Erlbaum said. “As they’re there throughout the week, they connect with one another and know that they’re not alone, which is so important because issues of domestic violence can be very isolating for folks.”

Erlbaum has also cultivated partnerships with culturally-specific organizations providing services for immigrants and survivors of color, as well as helping CWS launch Promotoras, a paraprofessional training program for Latinx survivors and community leaders.

CWS is able to serve a wide range of survivor’s needs largely due to Erlbaum’s vision of bringing together a community care network of service providers to collaboratively break deeply-rooted cycles of abuse and trauma, according to Board President Brian Maher.

“She has the charisma and the experience to pull other nonprofit organizations together and they want to be part of what Melissa is part of,” said Maher, who has worked with Erlbaum for nearly six years. “Everybody wants to be part of her vision.”

Echoing that sentiment is Erin Henkelman, director of A Safe Place Family Justice Center, which Erlbaum helped establish in Oregon City. The center is a conglomerate of over a dozen nonprofit and public agencies dedicated to serving survivors of intrapersonal abuse.

“She has a really holistic view and proactively builds relationships,” Henkelman said about Erlbaum, who she has worked closely with since 2007. “One of her core values is really the belief in collaboration, and when we’re working with survivors, if we all work together and we all have strong relationships across disciplines, we’re going to serve our community better.”

With all she has accomplished, Erlbaum emphasizes the importance of the dedicated workers and allies around her that help serve survivors of abuse in the county every day.

“We have a great team,” she said. “The people that we work with are just super inspiring.”
A powerful game-changer herself, Erlbaum said she hopes to inspire the next generation of game-changers to make a difference in their own communities.

“I think the next generation is going to accelerate change tremendously,” Erlbaum said. “A lot of it is about asking themselves, ‘What is the world they want to see?’ And knowing that they have a huge role in creating that. We are looking to them to lead the way, because they have great ideas and great ways of connecting with one another.”