By Marina Starleaf Riker

The Bulletin

Paying the rent may be the best-known challenge faced by low-income Central Oregonians, but it isn’t the only one. Many also may have trouble gaining access to support services. Some may have not have a reliable vehicle to make appointments, and others may be daunted by the complexity of rental-assistance forms.

Sarah Kelley has created a program to help them.

Her organization, Thrive Central Oregon, recently won a grant of nearly $120,000 from the Meyer Memorial Trust. Over the next three years, the money will help needy Central Oregon residents obtain a variety of services, including those for housing support.

“This program is open to anyone and everyone,” said Kelley. “It’s not about insurance; it’s not about immigration status; it’s not about criminal background — the idea is to increase access to what our community is already offering.”

The grant comes as a larger portion of Bend residents are living in poverty today than a decade ago. Between 2010 to 2015, meanwhile, the median rent in Bend grew 9 percent even as median income remained largely stagnant, according to Census data.

Kelley, 42, previously worked with the region’s homeless population for about eight years as an employee of Deschutes County Mental Health. Kelley, who’s lived in Bend for the last 15 years, found that many people who needed services struggled to find a way to get them — whether because of mental health problems, health issues or trouble finding transportation, she said.

In response, Kelley started offering services to people in 2014 as part of a project while earning a master’s degree in social work at Portland State University. In October 2015, she officially launched Thrive Central Oregon, which has since helped more than 600 people, she said.

Instead of working at a single location, Kelley sets up shop at two locations in Bend, two locations in Redmond and one in La Pine. By operating out of libraries and soup kitchens, she said, she makes it easy for people who are in need of services to get them.

“The idea was to give people services where they already are, not to give them even one extra stop,” said Kelley. “My goal is to have all the information with me as much as I possibly can, so when people come meet with me we get five things done, not one thing done.”

Kelley offers one-on-one assistance to people seeking a range of services, from rental assistance to applying for health care. When Kelley meets with people, she offers to help them enroll in as many programs as possible, she said.

With the grant money, Kelley will start working full-time and bring on a part-time employee at the start of 2017, she said. Eventually, she hopes to have at least two full-time employees and expand her services to Crook and Jefferson counties, she said.

“I’m drowning a little bit right now,” Kelley said. “But that’s a good problem for a start-up nonprofit to have.”

­— Reporter: 541-633-2160,