Senator Merkley visits Circle of Friends


Last updated 5/4/2022 at Noon

Charlie Kanzig

Senator Jeff Merkley visited Sisters Circle of Friends during a visit to the community last week.

Circle of Friends (COF) hosted a special guest on Friday, April 29, as U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley stopped by to acknowledge the $93,000 federal grant awarded to the nonprofit.

Merkley, who has served in the Senate since 2009, spent most of the visit asking staff members and adult mentors about the program and the impact it has on the youth of Sisters. His wife, Mary Sorteberg, and Outreach Director Stacey Jochimsen were also in attendance.

At the outset of the gathering, Merkley asked to learn more about the nuts and bolts of the mentoring program operation. Kelly Scholl, youth program coordinator for COF answered thoroughly, explaining that mentors, once they have been through an extensive screening process, spend about an hour a week with their mentee either at the clubhouse or at a pre-approved event.

Merkley continually directed questions to the mentors and staff members to really gain an understanding of how Circle of Friends operates and how the program impacts youth in Sisters.

Kay Johnson, who has mentored the same child from kindergarten to high school, shared her own personal experience regarding the impact of the program.

“As you get to know your student over time you can really begin to see the benefit clearly of just having one solid person in their life, a difference in their stability and confidence and success,” she said.

According to the group’s website, the Circle of Friends mission is: “To provide friends and resources that promote equal access for Sisters’ underserved children and youth to develop life skills, social skills, academic success, and individual talents.”

Circle of Friends provides mentorships for children K-12 in Sisters along with programs designed to help meet the mission of the group. There are currently 27 mentors involved in the program.

Mentors present continually emphasized how Circle of Friends allows kids to establish a sense of belonging, not only with their mentors, but with the other staff members and mentors, as well as the other students. One mentor said that her mentee said upon arriving at the Circle of Friends Campbell House, “This is my place.”

In addition to mentors meeting with students, Circle of Friends offers classes and group get-togethers, and also helps students connect with other activities in the community, while also partnering with parents.

When asked about how the Congressionally Directed Spending Grants are awarded, Merkley said that he prefers to call them Community Initiated Projects because the requests start from local communities who know their needs and goals and then are able to follow the grant application process with the hope of receiving funds.

“We get the applications and review them and then cheer on the ones that we think fit the criteria,” he said.

Nicole Woodson, executive director of Circle of Friends, said the organization plans “to add another youth program leader for middle and high school level and to better support our collaborative group mentorship model and provide more one to one push-in support for teenage youth.”

According to Woodson, some funds may be spent to provide better technology including software access and MacBooks or iPads for high school students to use.

Regarding the application process, Woodson said that it took her between 40-50 hours in all to complete, which included phone conversations, plenty of emails, submitting a grant summary and budget, and collecting three letters of recommendations from community partners.

“It was a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’ between different phases of the process, followed by quick turnarounds with more tasks and then long wait periods while the proposal worked its way through the subcommittees,” she explained. “Obviously, it was totally worth the effort.”

Merkley was noticeably impressed by the level of commitment of the volunteers and commented on the Campbell House facility. In his final remarks Merkley said, “Congratulations on this wonderful building and all that you are doing.”

Others in attendance for the celebration included mentors Jeff Smith, Curt Scholl, and Kelly Blither, as well as COF board members Marilyn Barnett and Terry Buchholz (also a mentor) and founder Duncan Campbell.


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