News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

‘Champion’ urges citizens to ‘show up’

How did Sisters become the community it is today? For those who’ve lived here for many years, the answer often goes back to volunteers, businesses, and nonprofit organizations who’ve invested sweat, dollars, and time. For Debbie Newport, it’s important for those new to Sisters to understand what it took to make Sisters special.

Newport typifies the character, commitment, and courage needed to create a community always striving to be better and reach youth in need. Her dedication throughout the pandemic has helped the nonprofit, Circle of Friends, remain resilient and able to fulfill its mission to mentor young people in need of long-term support.

Her work was acknowledged by the Sisters Country Vision Implementation Team, who sponsored the 2021 Community Champions Awards. Sisters community members and businesses who have risen to the occasion during COVID-19 were nominated for their work to keep Sisters prosperous, livable, resilient, and connected.

A retired school counselor and administrator, Newport championed efforts to improve lives of children in Sisters Country. She was surprised to hear she’d won an award but appreciated receiving it.

Looking back over her career working with struggling kids, she saw the need for resources, programs, and mentors to guide children towards healthy outlets and a positive future.

“Those kinds of resources, we’re building in the community, add to that kind of support. I believe in those things,” she said.

Even before she retired as an administrator for the Redmond School District, she worked with Circle of Friends doing visioning work in 2011.

“I was part of a community group formed to ascertain if that kind of organization was needed in Sisters, and how it might be developed,” she said.

Newport’s work building special-needs programming for kids from age 6 to 22 who were outside the mainstream because of special needs, and later because of behavioral and emotional issues, gave her insights into what was missing for students. She knew a program like Circle of Friends could benefit students and give them a firmer foundation as they navigated school and family life.

Newport has helped nonprofits who were in transition like Sisters Folk Festival Inc., Circle of Friends, and C4C (Citizens4Community). Being brought in from the outside allowed her to help the organizations navigate rough times and transition. Her role included reminding staff that the work they were doing was important, and that they’d get through it.

“My perspective allowed them to see that there’s a bigger picture out there,” she said. “If I can support them through the transition part then everybody can be stronger in the end. At least that’s the hope. Those three non-profits all provide such important resources for people in our community.”

Her latest role with Circle of Friends involved hiring a new executive director during COVID. The hurdles caused by the pandemic were high.

“The new executive director, Nicole Swisher Woodson, was hired with zero face-to-face time until the very end,” said Newport. “That was a new experience for everybody. Prior to it, I wouldn’t have thought it could be possible.”

Newport believes dedication to the Sisters community can happen in a myriad of ways. But there’s one key ingredient: “Just show up somewhere. I worry sometimes with so many more people moving into our community, they won’t understand how we got where we are today.”

She wants to help people understand the importance of really engaging in the community and building relationships with organizations and agencies that have contributed to a community culture of giving and participating.

For Newport, the strength and uniqueness of Sisters Country comes from a volunteer spirit.

“It’s not just one more vacation destination and cool little town to hang out in for a weekend,” she said. “It’s the infrastructure and relationships that built what it is today. I want people to know the community they’ve moved into and some of the ways we made it such an amazing town. I’d like to say, ‘come on in and let me show you some of the things we’ve done and are doing.’ That’s hard with everybody being busy and having life stuff. Being able to go one step further and say, what can I give to this community that makes it better for me and for everyone else is what’s helped us become who we are.”

Like everyone else, Newport’s life has been affected by the pandemic.

“I’ve had a lot of fun canceled this year,” she said. “We’re not ready to get out there yet. We’re also downsizing right now, and reconfiguring our life, which is exciting. We’re starting to think about traveling again, maybe to Asia where our daughter was working. We love it there. That won’t be for a while though. For now we’ve got a few river trips planned and a few in the mountains. I’m chomping at the bit to do a big trip.”

With no projects on the horizon, she’s figuring out how to best stay involved. She’ll continue to find ways to support nonprofits.

“How they imbed their work in the culture of the community is really important going forward. Part of that is because our community is changing so quickly I worry about losing that,” she said. “I don’t know what that looks like for me going forward. I’ll keep inviting new and old community members to be a volunteer or a board member, step up and support whether with time or dollars. Most of us don’t have both but we usually have one or the other. All of the organizations in our community are important. I love seeing how these nonprofits change kids’ lives.”


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