When you walk through the doors of p:ear on NW 6th Avenue in downtown Portland, it feels like coming home. I’m not sure if it’s the particular quality of light that seems to filter through the floor to ceiling windows, or how that light plays on the solid and well-worn wooden tables that seem to be begging to host a conversation over a plate of warm food. It might be the art that covers the walls in various stages of completion, or the familiar clutter of paper that fills in all the empty spaces. None of these aspects within themselves define a home, but for the kids who come to p:ear, they all serve as tokens for a space that offers up a unique and fierce brand of love that can be difficult to come by.
P:ear is a non-profit organization serving homeless youth aged fifteen to twenty-four within Multnomah County by offering outlets for creativity, resources for job training and education, access to outdoor recreation, organic meals, and more. Through these resources, p:ear fosters a community that is often astonishingly absent from the lives of the individuals they serve. This organization is unique in nearly every sense of the word, and I had the particular pleasure of sitting down with three of its employees last week to discuss precisely what it is, beyond wooden tables and light quality, that makes p:ear feel like home.
Throughout our conversation, I was astounded by how effortlessly Arts Program Director Will Kendall, Kitchen Coordinator Lindsey Kennedy, and Wilderness Programs Director Nate Engkjer all managed to respond to each inquiry about p:ear’s operations in a manner that was completely and unabashedly centered around the kids they serve. According to them, it is this mindset and the action that it produces that make p:ear such a success.
“The structure of p:ear puts relationship building opportunities first and foremost. Structuring our daily activities, the youth are always first. When I think of the most effective moments in my career working with youth, it’s been eye-to-eye contact, listening with enthusiasm, and being present. That’s the most valuable thing that we do,” says Will, who among other things, is in charge of bringing in artists to run workshops with the youth and managing p:ear’s art gallery, which displays the creations that result from these workshops. It’s this formation of trust that serves as the foundation for all the other activities at p:ear. As Will puts it, “you can’t sit somebody down who doesn’t feel like an artist and say, ‘express yourself using this medium that you’re probably not familiar with’. When you go out on an activity, and Nate’s got you up on a 100 foot wall and he’s holding the rope, you have to have an establishment of trust. We have to build those relationships before we engage youth in what makes up the education, arts, and recreation of p:ear.”
For many of the kids they work with, trust is somewhat of a foreign concept. They are accustomed to being ignored, to being pushed through systems without the resources they so desperately need, and to receiving looks of disdain far more often than looks of acceptance. That is precisely why p:ear believes valuing the effects of love and trust is so crucial to their operations. Nate speaks to this process, saying that “while pe:ar is foundationally a relational organization, there’s language that we use here that nobody else is using. It’s this three tiered process that we look at insofar as engaging with youth; and those three words are love, trust, and hope. These kids come into p:ear, and first and foremost, we create a safe place for them to be off of the street. That’s where we just truly surround them with love. It’s the first foundation for breaking down those walls that exist—a lot of these kids are pretty hard, coming off of the street. Through that love, trust begins to form. From that trust, we have created a place for hope to exist. That’s what allows this creativity to happen and these kids to feel safe, and to be able to engage in these activities.”
These foundations really are built from the ground up, and many days the first step begins with food being put into their bellies. P:ear offers two homemade, nourishing meals a day, and serves an average 45-50 kids for each meal. Lindsey, who oversees all the food production at p:ear, speaks to the standard of quality that they uphold; “Since I’ve been working here, I’ve been blown away by the number of times I’ve heard a kid say ‘if it wasn’t for p:ear, I would never eat vegetables.’ In all aspects, we try to have the food and the experiences available that we would have for ourselves. We’re not bringing in the leftovers of conventionally grown potatoes; if there are organic things out there, we’re going to use them. P:ear supports the ability to get the best, finest quality.” These meals often act as impetus for connections between all the different people who come to p:ear : staff, volunteers and youth alike. It draws back to the idea that the quality of service and care should not be decreased just because the population that they are interacting with consists of people in highly vulnerable and transitional states. Anyone, regardless of whether they live on the streets of Portland or not, can find comfort in sharing a warm meal in a loving environment.
Of course, Will, Lindsey, and Nate, all acknowledge that many of the resources and the unique structure that p:ear offer simply aren’t available to other organizations working within the homeless youth continuum. Due to the nature of their donor base, p:ear doesn’t need to keep statistics on the youth that they serve in the same way that most organizations do. “P:ear doesn’t treat anyone like an agenda.” says Lindsey, “Someone could come in, eat, and change her socks, and not have to do anything else besides that. There’s no expectation to have gotten their GED, to have been sober, to have gone to x amount of meetings. These youth can just come in, be themselves and just take a break from trying to meet a set agenda.”
P:ear’s mission is wrapped up in this idea of creating a safe space in which personal worth and potential can be realized. As with any kind of personal growth, it’s not necessarily quantifiable, and is achieved slowly and painstakingly. The walls of p:ear have held countless individuals struggling with addiction, mental illness, and hopelessness at an age when most are still living within the safety of their childhood homes. Through the emotionally taxing, incredibly rewarding experience of working these kids, there’s often a feeling that embeds the atmosphere, something that spans beyond words, that something good is being done, something that’s making a real difference. It’s a lot like the feeling of coming home.
“We look at every single youth who comes in here as a potential artist, a potential athlete, a potential educated young person. Everyone has the potential to do something creative or artistic, rather than just saying, ‘no, they won't make it.’. They may not always be in an opportune time to take advantage of all the opportunities that we offer, but the potential’s always there. Everybody is treated with the same baseline of love and respect when they come in here, and that’s where the potential starts.” This is the outcome of p:ear that Will, along with everyone else that I encountered there, champions so valiantly. That there is no diploma or number of days sober that will have the same, universal effect as reintroducing hope into somebody’s life. Create hope, foster love, and everything else, all the rest of the incredible potential that lies within these kids, will come too.
After spending time in p:ear, it’s difficult to not want to expand this nurturing environment and philosophy out into the rest of the city. As much as p:ear has become a home for so many, its doors still close at 3:00 each afternoon, and it is up to each kid to carry their sense of worth among the less hospitable streets of Portland. According to p:ear, that’s when the rest of the city is capable of playing its own crucial role in helping these individuals; “Let’s not look at Portland as a city and say, you need to create safe spaces for these kids. Let’s look at every single individual out there and ask them how they engage with people who are experiencing homelessness. Are you saying everything’s fine, or are you taking the time to treat them like human beings, treat them with the same care and nurture you would anyone else who’s in a situation as unfortunate as what they’re in. It’s on the individuals. Just as three amazing individuals created this space, it’s on the individuals of the city to take ownership, to look at the way they’re engaged with these people, and make it better.”
If you’d like to learn more about p:ear, you can visit their website at pearmentor.org, stop by their gallery on first thursdays at 338 NW 6th Ave, or donate to the organization through the Willamette Week’s Give!Guide.