Woman of the Year: Betsy Warriner | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

Woman of the Year: Betsy Warriner

From the ashes of Volunteer Connect rises a new phoenix: Volunteer Central Oregon. Here is the woman championing its cause.

Woman of the Year: Betsy Warriner
Joshua Langlais

At first glance, Betsy Warriner is demure, soft spoken and reserved. Her thoughts are well constructed, presented in a calm tone. Meeting with the Source in her home on the banks of Mirror Pond, the woman, her life and her surroundings point to another era – one of service, solitude and simplicity.

But there's something else about Warriner. Her light blue eyes shine brightly, a mischievous sparkle appearing when she talks. "People would be surprised that I can be goofy," she laughs, "that yes, I have a sense of humor underneath this button-downed persona."

Warriner, 77, has been a lifelong champion for justice and equality. Her volunteerism spans decades, including volunteering as the only white woman in a West Indies after-school program, to the streets of Ethiopia in the late '60s, to years of service in North Carolina, Seattle, Portland and Bend. As founder and executive director of Volunteer Connect, a nonprofit that closed last year and has now reemerged as Volunteer Central Oregon, she has given thousands of hours of her time, energy, guidance and wisdom.

"The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu touch on it in the "Book of Joy," she reflects, "Being aware of others' suffering and being compassionate enough to do something about it brings joy into your life. So I feel like my life is pretty joyful. I feel very fortunate."

Having come from a "highly privileged and chaotic family," she attributes her eccentric, observational nature to her father, who instilled a sense of inquiry and appreciation for the present moment. "He was always teaching us to observe even the smallest of things," she says. "We would be walking in the woods, and he'd say, 'If you ever get lost, the tendency is to walk in circles and you want to avoid doing that. So, notice what side of the tree the moss is on. It's usually on the north side. If you can notice that and go from tree to tree, you can go in a straight line and not get lost."

It's in her DNA to take notice — from the goldfinches that nestle and roost in her plum tree to the injustice and inequality that thread our communities. "I remember in high school, standing in the doorway and thinking, 'I just want to make a difference in the world."

click to enlarge Woman of the Year: Betsy Warriner
Joshua Langlais

Small acts garner big change

A Harvard graduate and a mother of two twin girls who she calls her best friends, Warriner began her career as a teacher before obtaining her doctorate in counseling. It was at a Seattle university where she was first introduced to the concept of service learning.

"One year there were a couple of students who didn't want to volunteer, so the college let them do a paper instead," she says. "We discovered that at the end of the term the students who did the paper were completely depressed because they were studying social problems without seeing any real solutions in sight. The ones who did the service learning however, were completely opposite – they were hopeful and full of insights because they saw people making a difference." Warriner then found herself in a position that she carried over to Portland Community College and to Bend with Volunteer Connect and Volunteer Central Oregon, as a facilitator and liaison for those wanting to volunteer.

Volunteer Connect, which began as Volunteer Insights, was founded by a group of community members in 2004, wanting to connect eager volunteers with local volunteer opportunities. The platform, which has since shifted to Volunteer Central Oregon, hosts a database of over 130 nonprofits. Visitors easily search and find opportunities that suit their interests, time commitments and locale.

But nonprofits that serve a wide need face tough fundraising battles, since donors are more apt to donate to a specific cause or organization. "People like to know that their money is going to a specific project or cause, so it's hard to attract fundraisers when you can't tell them specifically this is going to this or that." Approaching her late 70s, Warriner told the board of directors at Volunteer Connect that she was planning on retiring in a year, so her executive director position would now have to be filled and paid for. The nonprofit found itself with a huge hole to fill. The board grew anxious that it might not make it through its operating budget and instead of weathering the storm, it quickly decided to close shop, Warriner says.

"I was sent out of the room, so to speak," Warriner says, "Personally, it was the most painful experience of my life. At last, I had finally found a way to make a difference in the community – it was working well, we had a beautiful team and there was nothing I could do to save it. It was hard." Her doctorate in counseling offered tools for her to deal with the crisis, but she admits that at that time it was too hard to counsel herself. "Your defenses are up and all you're thinking about is, 'How do I save this organization?" Instead, she turned to her daughters and a book called, "Give and Take," by Adam Grant.

"I regret we didn't give the community the chance to rally behind us, to help support us." She points to A6 Studio & Gallery, which recently made a public plea of financial support – and was surprisingly rewarded with $27,000 in donations.

From grief comes hope

"There's a lot of giving and volunteering in this community," asserts Warriner. "A lot of local nonprofits regularly collaborate and help each other out. The spirit really is in giving." That collaboration was evident when the news broke of Volunteer Connect closing. Katie Condit, executive director of Better Together, appeared, ready to build on the work Warriner and her team had accomplished. A new organization emerged: Volunteer Central Oregon. "Many people think we're completely closed and the database is lost, but that's the farthest from the truth. We have exactly the same database and we're doing exactly the same work. We're growing as a matter of fact." Betsy no longer needs to fundraise as much and instead connects with organizations, aids their volunteer searches and consults in her spare time.

"All in all, it's worked out for the best. I'm grateful that I can keep doing good work."

So then Betsy Warriner, the gracious, thoughtful and ever-observant volunteer, will not retire next month as she had planned. Instead, she will continue her sustained efforts to better our local community by expanding its network of volunteers.

For anyone wanting to volunteer but feeling overwhelmed by the choices, she offers bits of advice: "People say, 'Oh, I can't do everything so I won't do anything. Giving can be a habit that can start with small steps. So start small. Find an area that you are truly interested in and commit some time there. If you don't have time, then $50 towards a small organization that is doing good work, really does make a difference."

Retirement be damned, Betsy Warriner, almost 78,continues to give to our community. She is the 2017 Woman of the year due to her lifetime commitment to public service. Congratulations, Betsy, and thank you for your work.

To find out how you can get started in volunteering in Central Oregon, click here

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