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Helpline@SonBridge: Carrying on the legacy of resource referrals for Walla Walla Valley

Union-Bulletin March 24, 2023


Helpline@SonBridge, originally Helpline, is continuing its legacy as a leading entity of resource referrals for low-income and homeless individuals and families in the Walla Walla Valley.


Helpline provided social services to the Walla Walla area for almost 50 years before it closed in 2022.


The decision to shut down was made because of the changing landscape of nonprofit work, with more organizations offering similar services as Helpline, and because of the increased availability of information through technology. This has resulted in less of a need for emergency referrals and support.


Norman Thiel, executive director of SonBridge Center for Better Living, said in the past, there was an exceptional need for bus passes and food vouchers. These were two major themes that Helpline set to tackle. Along came the pandemic and many nonprofits shifted their gaze to address these issues. Bus passes became free, and food was much more readily available.


“All of a sudden, a lot of the volume that Helpline was working with was no longer there,” Thiel said. “The ongoing story is what will happen in the next nine to 18 months when all of a sudden, these resources are no longer so readily available and accessible?”


With the uncertain future in mind, Thiel said he was inclined to pick up the agency that had originally partnered with SonBridge and place it under SonBridge's umbrella of services.


In January 2023, Helpline@SonBridge was created to provide direct assistance to clients for available on-site resources. Screening and referral vouchers are provided for necessities that are offered elsewhere.


Clients are referred to medical, dental and optical clinics, employment services, food banks and pantries and organizations in the community that offer assistance with utilities and housing.


Service providers such as United Way, Blue Mountain Action Council and area churches have partnered with Helpline@SonBridge.


Betty Farley, who serves as the communications and development manager at SonBridge, has held her position for about eighteen months. Despite her relatively brief tenure, she has already recognized the crucial role that Helpline has played in filling important gaps.


“Helpline is the starting point that allows all of the other nonprofits to distribute services more evenly and efficiently,” Farley said.


A database has been compiled over the years from those who have used Helpline as a resource. It holds logistical information such as how many people are in a family seeking need or what their transportation situation is like.


It also helps to keep people from double dipping into resources, she said.


Thiel said Helpline@SonBridge delves deeper than just giving people resources they say they need in the moment. He said a lot of times people will walk into SonBridge for one thing, but the screening process will help them walk out with more.


“Let's say someone came in and said they needed new shoes,” Thiel said. “We would then ask, why are the new shoes needed or why is it so urgent? A lot of the time people will then talk about something that leads to a deeper problem. From there we can offer help with finding resources that goes beyond a pair of shoes.”


“We try to dig deeper to help the whole person,” Farley said.


Helpline@SonBridge also offers a place for people to just talk. “A lot of the times, that is what people need. They just want someone to listen,” she said.


“We can't solve all problems,” Farley said. “But we can be a resource. We can fix some immediate things, and then we can refer to other agencies who can contribute as well.”


Farley said the original Helpline was much more Walla Walla-centric while now it extends to the same footprint that SonBridge has, which reaches throughout Walla Walla County and even into Oregon.


“We are not geographically defined,” Farley said. “We’re people helping people, and we don’t have hard lines about who we help.”


The long-term plan is to keep the doors open for those who need help. “We will continue to respond to the needs of our community,” Thiel said. “If food comes back up as a needed source, we will work to address that, same with transportation.”


Thiel compared Helpline@SonBridge to a catalyst and said it will continue to work to bring out the best in other area agencies by not duplicating services and sharing the load.


SonBridge has an advisory committee composed of people involved in higher education, government, and other social service agencies. Thiel said this helps to keep a finger on the pulse of the community and discuss what is needed with those who can offer another perspective.


“The way forward is to keep in touch with what those needs are,” Thiel said. “Things are constantly changing and shifting, but Helpline@Sonbridge will continue to be the screening agency to make sure that the right people are getting the right help.”


Hannah McIntyre can be reached at hmcintyre@wwub.com or 509-526-8301.

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