Hunger soars as Sunshine Division celebrates 100 years
When a Portland police officer's wife saw a homeless widow and her children living in squalor in Northeast Portland's Sullivan's Gulch in 1922, it set into motion an organization that continues to fulfill its mission a century later.
The Sunshine Division, which is no longer a division of the Portland Police Bureau, has been feeding hungry families in the Portland area for 100 years. But its birth is also connected to the rising popularity and use of cars.
In 1922, a police officer helped that mom with children living in a lean-to, current Executive Director Kyle Camberg said. "And then in 1923, actually a number of police officers were laid off due to this new technology called the automobile."
That's when then-Mayor George Baker recruited volunteer civilians to serve in emergency situations. The civilian officers were eventually called the Portland Police Reserve.
"These reserves, these police officers and Mayor Baker at the time said, we should really do something around the Christmas holiday. So in Christmas of 1923, a number of police officers, reserves and city officials made sure that families in Goose Hollow got a basket of food on Christmas Eve, and that was our first home delivery," Camberg said. "We kind of consider that really when the tradition became real."
They became known as "George Baker's Sunshine Boys" because they brought sunshine to all the families they visited. The Sunshine Division started on the second floor of East Precinct at Southeast Seventh and Alder before moving into North Portland in 1975. It expanded beyond the holidays to include clothing and household items.
"We do function year-round," said the late Sunshine Division Commander Bud Lewis years ago. "Our efforts, as I indicated to you, is a great deal more during the year."
In the 1960s, the Sunshine Division became a nonprofit 501C-3 and no longer part of the PPB. But its law enforcement roots remain.
"Whether it was 1960, 1923 or today, a Sunshine Division food box still remains in a Portland police precinct," Camberg said. "Police officers still help us at the holidays."
Through the '70s, '80s, '90s and 2000s, the Sunshine Division kept growing to meet the demand. Families stopped at the North Thompson and Southeast Stark warehouses for food boxes.
And the need has never been greater.
In 2019, a normal week saw 330 families coming to the two locations. Then the pandemic hit and that number jumped to 1,000 families a week.
"It's been startling to me how many people are coming to our front doors and the fact that that has not only receded, it has grown," Camberg said.
They also launched a home delivery program during 2020 as they realized many elderly and immunocompromised people couldn't get to their warehouses. The Sunshine Division now averages about 400 deliveries a week in addition to the 1,000 families who come to the warehouses weekly.
"So, 1,400 compared to 330 — that's our new normal," Camberg said. "Donations have gone up a little and food drives have gone up a little. Things have gotten normalized now. We're serving 4 times more than we did in 2019. That's why we need the help. We need more food drives, more contributions because 4 times is a really tough number to meet."
Just three days before Thanksgiving, the Sunshine Division had the single-busiest day in its 100-year history. More than 1,100 people stopped by the warehouses to pick up a food box.
The Sunshine Division planned to deliver 15,000 turkey meals between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year. They actually ran out of turkeys to give out in mid-November because the demand was so high.
"The only way that this organization has ever helped anyone for 100 years is because local individuals, companies care. They donate their time, they donate money, they donate food," he said.
KOIN 6 News is a news partner of the Pamplin Media Group.
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