Olympia Outreach Workers League networks in the name of compassion

Renata Rollins worked with the Olympia Downtown Ambassadors for a year, and after leaving in June, has carried on her ambassador ways.

She has rounded up nearly a dozen service organizations to form the Olympia Outreach Workers League, which hosted its first event Aug. 22 at the Artesian Commons in downtown Olympia. Rollins said they hope to host another event in October.

Dubbed “Reach Out at the Well,” the event focused on street outreach, with volunteers collaborating to deliver an array of information and services, from free snacks to free legal advice.

The event’s location at the artesian well was significant to the Outreach Workers League’s mission, Rollins said. Volunteers even conducted a one-question survey, asking people about their “wish for the well.” Responses ranged from installing grass and a 24-7 bathroom to holding more community events at the well.

One respondent wished for “the freedom to be here day and night and to be safe,” Rollins said.

“The well is the heart of downtown,” Rollins said. “That’s where the people are. It’s about meeting people where they’re at.”

Rollins said her previous job as a downtown ambassador helped erase her apprehensions about downtown and further ignited her passion for service to the people she’s met.

A primary job of local outreach workers, she said, is to create an environment where others feel safe.

The ambassadors provide hospitality, customer service and information for anyone downtown, seven days a week. Before becoming an ambassador, Rollins saw downtown as a place where she would be subjected to leering and unwelcome behavior from so-called street people.

“It wasn’t because I thought I would get hurt. I just didn’t want to be bothered,” Rollins said of her previous outlook on downtown. “Anything is scarier when you don’t know it.”

Another participant in the outreach league is Stonewall Youth, whose goal is to empower gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.

Nearly 40 percent of homeless street youth nationwide identify as LGBTQ, said program director Sammy Harvell. Olympia’s homeless youth mirror that trend Harvell said.

Harvell said the new league can play a key role in networking for local outreach groups to serve homeless people in downtown Olympia and beyond. For example, the connections can help transgender youth struggling to find appropriate shelter, he said.

“We all have the same goals in mind,” Harvell said.

Another participant in the league is the PB&J Project, which hands out free sandwiches three days a week at the artesian well.

Charlie Kruger, the project’s co-organizer, said outreach workers run strong on passion but short on help. The league offers an opportunity to connect with like-minded members of the outreach community, he said.

“So many of our goals aren’t traditional business goals,” said Kruger, a longtime volunteer in various outreach efforts as well as a former downtown ambassador.

Homeless outreach can deter crime among people on the street and contribute to Olympia’s overall well-being, he said.

“When we take care of the emotional and human element of things, the city itself benefits,” Kruger said. “That kind of healing keeps people from feeling desperate. So much crime is linked to suffering and fear and loneliness.”