For citizens in south-central Washington, a chance for change grew from weeds.
“The sidewalks were turning into weed patches,” says Celynn VanDeventer. “We stepped up because we wanted our city to look great.”
When the small town of White Salmon, Washington, experienced a water shortage, Celynn had a lush idea: an all-volunteer effort to save the flowers and boost the community.
Celynn and friend Lloyd DeKay worked with city leaders, enlisted business support and recruited volunteers to maintain the flowers and shrubs that lined several blocks of the town’s main street. A decade later, both the plants and the community are thriving.
“There’s been a massive increase in community pride,” Lloyd says. “We’re bringing people together to do good.”
Created in 2010, Community Partners started with five volunteers who wanted to save a few flower patches. The group is now the driving force behind nearly every community event, including the annual Fourth of July parade, summer concerts in the park, a Halloween celebration, a community Christmas tree and streetlighting.
“Our motto is ‘Let’s get things done,’” says Lloyd, the group’s president. “If the town is successful, we’re all successful.”
Initially formed to enhance the town’s beauty, Community Partners took its name to heart and expanded its reach to include the neighboring town of Bingen. With a combined population of 3,500, the two communities are nestled along the Washington shore of the Columbia River in a rural setting 60 miles east of Portland, Oregon, within the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.
Operating as a nonprofit organization with a core group of volunteers and more than 100 on-call helpers, Community Partners has changed the face and culture of the small, struggling towns.
With art as their mark, evidence of Community Partners is everywhere: in colorful murals and crosswalks throughout downtown, bountiful planter beds, decorative street banners, creative bike racks and unique signage.
When entering White Salmon, you can’t miss the set of brightly painted windsurf boards “planted” in wine barrels. The unusual welcome is a playful nod to the popular watersports that have helped revive the Columbia Gorge region.
What’s the recipe for community success?
“No meetings. No paid memberships. All volunteer. And we don’t spend much money,” explains Celynn, an artist and entrepreneur who has lived in White Salmon for 40 years.
Her enthusiasm drives the grassroot projects.
“All our efforts and funds go toward community improvements,” she says.
More than just creating a pretty town with fun events, Community Partners also aims to boost the local economy.
Celynn recalls the booming 1980s, when White Salmon and nearby Bingen were fully sustainable towns lined with shops selling shoes, clothes, furniture and even cars.
With the demise of logging, the robust atmosphere dwindled. Business slowed. Across the bridge, Hood River, Oregon, revved up as a windsurfing, shopping and tourist destination.
In the past decade, however, White Salmon’s population has grown 20%. The work of Community Partners may have played a role.
“Community Partners has had a noticeable impact on White Salmon,” says Marla Keethler, mayor of White Salmon. “Volunteer efforts are very important to the community and are critical to sustaining many of the activities that fall outside of the role of city government.
“The relationship between the city and organizations such as Community Partners is vital to all of us being able to give to the residents the types of experiences that really form a sense of community. We can maintain and provide our parks facilities, for example, but the memories many residents have of those facilities come from the events that happen there. Many of those events are not possible without the involvement of volunteers and organizations like Community Partners.”
By enhancing visual appeal and increasing community involvement, the all-volunteer group is changing attitudes and perceptions.
“People now come to us with new projects and new ideas,” Lloyd says. “When things need to get done, they come to us. Building community spirit and bringing people together definitely has an economic impact. People see the changes and talk to others. They bring their families, homes and businesses here.”
An important component to the group’s success is its willingness to collaborate.
In the throes of the coronavirus outbreak, for example, Community Partners donated several of its large event tents to the local hospital so it could provide space for COVID-19 testing.
“Community is part of our name,” Lloyd says, “and we’re committed to doing what we can for our community.”
It’s a mindset that resonates, says Dave Poucher, who served 12 years as White Salmon mayor.
“They work well with other organizations,” he says, citing their teamwork with local art groups, chamber of commerce and city leaders.
“We’ve got a great group of people who want to do things.”
While the founding members appreciate the acknowledgement, they deflect the attention.
“It’s really gratifying to do these things—not for the title, recognition or attention, but just to get things done,” Lloyd says.
“For a long time, no one knew who was doing these things,” Celynn adds. “We were the secret elves hanging ornaments in the trees.”
Community Partners’ most visible effort was, for many years, its best-kept secret.
“We were kinda rogue initially,” Celynn explains. “The first year, we walked Dock Grade and threw PVC piping over the trees to hang ornaments. But that was too much. We were so glad when the city donated a cherry picker so that we could hang the ornaments. It really is beautiful, and everyone thinks it’s the best thing ever.”
The annual sight is so adored that more and more people want to take part.
“The community wanted to be involved, but we couldn’t have everyone in the bucket truck,” Celynn says with a laugh.
Community Partners compromised, adding an ornament party to its litany of events. More than 40 people gathered at a local pizza place and prepared ornaments.
“We have kids and families, all here together, cutting fishing line, tying ornaments,” Celynn says. “Everyone has a great time.”