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Selfless, committed, collaborative, inspiring. The accolades flow easily when describing Jerralynn Ness, who plans to retire this year after 43 years of service to Washington County residents at Community Action.


I have been fortunate to know and work with her for many of those years, so I’m very much aware of the difference she’s made in the lives of thousands of our neighbors struggling with poverty.

Ness came to Community Action in 1973 when it was a fledgling agency created under President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and still feeling its way. Staffed by just a handful of true believers in social justice, the agency put her to work helping the elderly and disabled cope with the loss of benefits under changing state and federal rules. After 10 years of working in various jobs at the agency, she became its executive director in 1984.

Initially, Community Action had been almost alone as an agent for change in addressing poverty in the county. For its first 17 years, the agency had focused on getting its arms around local poverty issues. It also served as a laboratory, testing alternative approaches to helping struggling people get back on their feet, achieve greater economic security and have hope for a better future.

The early years exposed intense community conflicts over why people were poor, the rights of the poor and the proper role of government in addressing their concerns.

As the new executive director, Ness realized that no matter how deeply Community Action staff felt about their mission, they could not find solutions alone; the nurturing and growth of other organizations and their collaboration in identifying and tackling connected issues were essential.

Under Ness’ leadership, Community Action leapt into a new era of vigor and influence, building partnerships across all sectors to collaboratively address issues of poverty. She understood private support was critical if the organization was to become sustainable, and led the organization to diversify its funding base.

Looking back, its energy and reach have been astounding, and today Ness’ fingerprints are everywhere.

First, the agency reached out to the faith and business communities as well as to city and county governments and nonprofit organizations concerned about poverty. Critically, Ness transformed the agency into a trusted partner that government and business could turn to for advice on how to address poverty that persists in the state’s wealthiest county.

Ness and her staff successfully advocated for Washington County to distribute block grant money to groups of nonprofits interested in collaborative approaches in dealing with poverty issues — rather than forcing individual nonprofits to compete tooth and nail for limited funds. This created sustainable service delivery systems that drew on the different strengths of each organization and made better use of taxpayer dollars.

In addition, Community Action expanded its Head Start school readiness program and initiated self-help programs such as crop gleaning, wood gleaning and food cooperatives. As the needs of the community changed, the organization’s services evolved, offering tenant and welfare hotlines, a food bank, homeless services, emergency rent and energy assistance, weatherization, affordable housing and child care resource and referral.

Under Ness’ direction, Community Action also broadened its programs to respond to the changing nature of poverty and played a part in spurring the creation of new nonprofits addressing critical needs, such as Centro Cultural, Bienestar, Community Partners for Affordable Housing and the Domestic Violence Resource Center.

Ness also concentrated on professionalizing the agency and securing construction of a new headquarters building in Hillsboro in 1995. Meanwhile, she managed growth of the agency’s staff from fewer than a dozen to 280 and growth of its annual budget from about $2 million to $24 million.

Because the reasons for an individual or family’s poverty are different and complex, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Recognizing this, Ness has always strived to make Community Action part of a comprehensive response that is respectful and demands personal responsibility. Ever the diplomat, she has also excelled at bringing people together to work toward meaningful goals and building respect for Community Action.

Ness has every reason to be proud of what she has accomplished. Working arm-in-arm with other concerned citizens, Community Action has become a highly functioning, caring agency well-positioned to continue its positive impact.

Jerralynn Ness’ legacy is strong. She will be greatly missed.

Lou Ogden is serving his sixth term as mayor of Tualatin and is a member of the Tualatin-based Resource Strategies Planning Group.

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