Kirsten Wageman

Kirsten Wageman

2020 Community Heroes - Gresham Outlook

Hometown: Gresham

She is a community hero because of the work she has done helming SnowCap Community Charities through the pandemic. Despite her volunteer base being decimated, Wageman kept the doors to the nonprofit food pantry open by taking on new tasks to ensure every vulnerable family was served.

PROUDLY SPONSORED BY:

FEEDING EAST MULTNOMAH COUNTY

A few months into the pandemic, disaster struck a Gresham nonprofit food pantry that easily could have shut down the vital service it provides.

A volunteer at SnowCap Community Charities tested positive for COVID-19 in April. That person had been in the food pantry alongside dozens of others, forcing nearly the entire group to self-quarantine at home to see if they exhibited symptoms. Before testing was widely available, it left SnowCap with just six people able to open up the nonprofit food pantry.

Luckily, one of them was Executive Director Kirsten Wageman.

“It became clear that myself and only a couple of others had not been exposed, so the six of us kept the program running for two weeks,” Wageman said. “We never considered closing — if someone needs food, we will always have it.”

In those two weeks, she nearly quadrupled her workload. She helped assemble food boxes in the back, staffed the front desk, worked with community partners to secure donations and supplies, and coordinated deliveries.

“We were exhausted, I realized I am old and not as strong as I used to be,” Wageman said with a laugh. “Those are the experiences that remind us of what we are capable of.”

Wageman is capable of a lot. Because of her tireless work ethic to uplift vulnerable families, while continuing to support her loved ones through the pandemic, she has been named one of Pamplin Media’s 2020 Community Heroes.

“It is very humbling because I am just a small cog at SnowCap,” she said. “Thank you for noticing me and recognizing SnowCap. It’s such an encouragement. The work is difficult and complicated, but I feel like this community is cheering me on.”

Wageman’s first official job at SnowCap was in 1997 when she was a freshman in college, working a position she described as a “young person who could lift heavy things.” But really, she grew up in the organization.

Her mother served as assistant director for many decades, and Wageman grew up at SnowCap.

“I volunteered in every area, and I never dreamed it would become my calling,” Wageman said. “It always drew me back.”

As executive director, she has been instrumental in growing the nonprofit food pantry to help even more people across East Multnomah County. Wageman implemented new hours to account for those unable to visit during the day and has thrived at securing grants and donations. She has also motivated new faces to join the organization as volunteers.

Innovation has been a focal point for her, evidenced most recently when COVID-19 struck at the worst possible time for SnowCap.

The nonprofit organization was gearing up for its annual auction, which raises $151,000, or 18%, of the budget. The significant fundraiser had to be shuttered two days before it was scheduled because of safety and health concerns.

“It was jarring because it takes our volunteers all year to plan the event,” Wageman said.

Wageman didn’t give up. She rallied other leaders at SnowCap that same day to develop an alternative plan — a virtual paddle raise to recoup as much as possible. Then she turned her attention to how SnowCap operates. The standard method of having clients go through the pantry with a shopping cart was untenable due to distancing. So she transitioned SnowCap for a shopping pantry to a food box factory.

“As soon as we switched gears, we looked at the most basic value we provide — service to the community,” Wageman said. “We anticipated the needs and figured out how we could safely operate.”

In the early days, it was the partnerships Wageman has cultivated that helped SnowCap continue. Bess Wills and Gresham Ford donated gloves, the city of Gresham helped secure a shipping container from the Port of Portland to store supplies, and new volunteers stepped up to deliver food to homebound community members who were unable to venture out safely.

“I love bringing together people who have things to share with people who need them,” she said. “It is a gift I have, and it’s an honor to be the one people can call when they need help.”

A balance between the nonprofit organization and her own family can be difficult to achieve, but luckily like Wageman, her daughters are growing up at SnowCap. Two of her daughters spend one day each week helping in the pantry.

“I think it’s a good experience and how we grow community leaders when they are young,” she said. “As a working mother, it’s a challenge, but we are in it together.”

There has also been plenty of fun at home, crossing off family bucket list items during social distancing. They made homemade root beer (she said it was delicious), have been taking on all sorts of puzzles, and her youngest child, 7, took off the training wheels for the first time.

“I encourage folks to not put your head down and see all the negative. If you look for the good, you will be able to find it,” Wageman said. “This community is a magical and caring place.”

Wageman is a big reason why that is, and her heroic efforts in East Multnomah County have made a real difference.