Coffee: grounds for community enrichment
With the holidays rapidly approaching, Boardman and Eastern Oregon non-profit organizations find themselves scrambling for donations. The need is increasingly great—not just for Thanksgiving or Christmas—but year-round.
From helping Hermiston high school pupils pay student body fees to covering rent and electrical bills at an Irrigon senior center, the free coffee served at Boardman’s I-84 rest area pumps lifeblood back to community members who need it most.
Oregon Travel Experience supervises the Boardman rest area and issues coffee permits to local non-profit organizations. Low income families, seniors and the disabled all benefit from donations received from motorists who stop for coffee, hot chocolate, or a cookie. The program’s success banks on the free coffee volunteers who embrace the principle of giving back.
Many of the Boardman rest area free coffee participants have been engaged in the program for a decade or longer. Organizations vie for coveted slots on holiday weekends, since donations generally increase with the amount of traffic on I-84. All money is channeled to where it is needed most.
“We drive our seniors to doctor’s appointments in Portland, Bend, Pendleton, and even Walla Walla,” says Bette Ternes of the Stokes Landing Senior Center in Irrigon. “The money we raise from drivers using the free coffee program not only pays for gas but also keeps the lights on in our center. We’re here 24/7 for our seniors when they need a ride.”
Ternes and her husband have served free coffee for over 10 years at Boardman. She says drivers who stop are pleased by the service. “You can’t believe how many people stop and talk with us—some for over half an hour,” says Terns. “The truckers are especially grateful. We’re the first thing they see in the morning. They come right on over to our trailer with their big travel mugs.”
One of the challenges facing Ternes’ group is the aging volunteer population and the lack of younger residents in their small community.
“It’s the same people that do the work all the time. Some of us are in our 80s and we’ve lost a lot of people lately. We really could use some help,” said Ternes. “All the money donated for the free coffee goes to operating our senior center. We were able to buy new tables and chairs for the lunchroom, pay for janitorial services, and make improvements to the nurse’s station and bathrooms. But if the roads are bad, we can’t go. We’re all getting up there in age.”
Jessie Davila is the secretary at Columbia River Harvesters, located in Boardman. Davila says her non-profit gleans food from local farmers and home-orchardists. An overflow harvest of apples, pears, and corn feed seniors and needy families in Boardman.
“The farmers call us up and we go right to the place they have a crop,” says Davila. “Instead of food going to waste, we get our group volunteers together and go pick it right from the farm or garden. The cash donations we get from the Free Coffee Program help us to pay the rent on our office and the gas it takes to go pick up the food.”
Columbia River Harvesters Manager Julia Cardenas and Davila open the center to the community for food distribution to anyone in need. The center is currently gearing up for holiday turkey food-baskets and will be at the Boardman rest area serving coffee over Thanksgiving weekend.
“We save enough donation money from the coffee to go and buy turkeys for the baskets,” says Davila. “We also give out Christmas baskets. We coordinate buying the turkeys with our local Walmart who helps with the price. Then Safeway donates stuffing, pumpkin pies, and other fixings.”
Columbia River Harvesters distributes food boxes three days per week at their North Main Street location in Boardman. The center opens at 1:00 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays, and provides food to the hungry until 3:00 p.m. Every nickel gleaned from serving coffee at the Boardman rest area is re-cycled into food distribution activities.
Located in Athena, Oregon, the Paradise Good Sam’s Club show their community support by serving free coffee and cookies at least once a month for a six-day stint. Louis Pulley says any donations his group receives from serving coffee goes directly to the people that actually need it.
“We’ve bought coats and shoes for grammar school students and help support Dogs for the Deaf,” said Pulley. “We go and play cards with lonely veterans at the Veterans Hospital in Walla Walla. We even paid student body expenses for high school students whose parents could not afford the extra fees.”
Pulley’s group is active in the local Adopt-a-Highway and Adopt-a-Park programs. “The coffee service helps the Good Sams fund just about anything that’s needed in the community,” he said. “And we really enjoy meeting the nice people who stop and talk to us at the rest area. It’s really gratifying to help them get back on the road.” Pulley says the program truly supports their volunteer efforts.
“We tried other things to raise money,” Pulley said. “We used to do garage sales but then we found out about the Free Coffee Program and bought ourselves a little trailer. It’s really paid off.”
At the Hermiston Masonic Lodge 138, Michael Parker talks about the benefits of the Free Coffee program to his organization. “We’re big on helping kids in Hermiston,” he says. “All of the money we receive from our shifts at the Boardman rest area goes to Bikes for Books and scholarships for kids to go to college. We also use the money to buy speech therapy for children.”
Parker’s group has been at the Boardman rest area serving free coffee to drivers for over 25 years. “We’d like to see a permanent set-up for the program,” he said. “We have to haul our own trailers in and out, and it can be difficult. We’d like to see something like what’s been done in the Willamette Valley, where there’s dedicated space at the (Oregon Travel Experience) rest area offices.”
For Parker, holiday-weekend shifts at the rest area means children from Hermiston to Irrigon benefit from the donations. “Our basic goal is to help kids. All of the money goes for good things. We don’t get any money personally out of it.”
Many visitors stretching their legs at the Boardman rest area are curious about the sights they drive by. Diane Wolfe from the Boardman Chamber of Commerce knew the rest area was a perfect choice for a visitor’s guide. She also knew volunteers from the Free Coffee program would be happy to help motorists find their way into nearby communities.
“The Free Coffee program volunteers said they were getting lots of questions about services available in the middle of the night or very early in the morning. Drivers would ask things like ‘We’re heading to Pendleton, is there anywhere to eat at this time of night?’ I decided to combine information about local businesses in Boardman and across Morrow County, and include communities like Heppner, Irrigon, and Umatilla County.”
Wolfe says she wanted motorists to know there are local businesses and places to stop and explore if they exit I-84—so she included the unusual in her visitor’s guide. “I picked unique places that people aren’t likely to find elsewhere. For example in Pendleton, there’s Hamley’s.”
“My goal is to expand the book. Even commuters who drive I-84 all the time probably have days when they want to know more about the area they drive by. The information in the guide might encourage them to stop and explore—maybe even come back on a day off when they have more time.”
As interstate travelers crisscross the state east and west, Free Coffee Program volunteers are the guiding stars to many a destination. Their commitment to the communities they live and work in is reflected in their faces as they visit with tired motorists, truckers, and young families.
Without capable hands delivering food boxes, warm coats, or giving rides, hundreds of local people would be cold, stranded, and hungry. Free coffee volunteers are the stars who make the program a success for everyone.
Their contributions travel well beyond the Boardman rest area; rested and refreshed drivers mean fewer accidents on the freeway. Next time you travel I-84, make sure to stop and visit with an Oregon Travel Experience free coffee volunteer. You won’t find cappuccino, but you will make a difference in the lives of children, seniors, and the hungry.
Learn what’s required to become a Free Coffee program volunteer.