SonBridge: Consistent Mission, Expanded Vision

A little more than 10 years ago, a small group of passionate and visionary Adventists saw an increasing number of unmet needs within the Walla Walla Valley of southeast Washington. An idea formed in their minds of what could be done to serve the helpless and hopeless within the community.

These Adventists shared their vision of service with others, and the idea spread rapidly. The project was so compelling that eight local Adventist churches joined together to make that vision become a reality. With great excitement, the churches decided to develop an Adventist Community Services program together that would serve in ways impossible individually. Soon after, SonBridge was created.

Today, SonBridge Community Center has a 33,000-square-foot building on a 2.1-acre campus in College Place, Wash., and serves more than 8,000 people per year from the greater Walla Walla Valley area.

This year has been a year of big changes. The center's longtime and well-loved executive director, June Christensen, has retired. A large expansion of the SonBridge's education center is underway, and educational classes and social services continue to serve the needs of the community in a significant way.

In the midst of many changes, a tone of constancy rings as Norman Thiel accepts the position as the new executive director. Thiel has been an active and passionate part of SonBridge for the past four years. He began as a board member, became an interim campaign manager to complete the medical and dental clinics, and later became the chairman of the finance committee.

While serving in each position, Thiel met and worked beside many inspiring volunteers. Many of these workers have spent their careers in Adventist organizations and now are serving as volunteers in their retirement. “Their inspiring attitudes, skills and teamwork make SonBridge the most meaningful place for me to be,” says Thiel. “I’ve been so blessed by the collaboration with other faith communities as we work to alleviate pain."

Entering any new leadership role can be a daunting task, but Thiel is already geared up for the expansion of SonBridge. Some of the immediate goals he plans to incorporate include growing services, from meeting urgent needs of utility bills, clothing, car repairs, aching teeth and relief from physical pain to training and educating community members on prevention of health and social crises through productive and connected lives.

Thiel also understands the need of completing funding goals and plans to fund the expansion of the education center by the end of 2016. “We currently are about 80 percent complete in raising funds, but we will forfeit $300,000 of the present funding if it’s not raised by the end of this year,” he explains.

Once the education center is operating at full capacity, Thiel hopes to expand the education facility from a maximum of 120 to 250 people in a training session. Currently, only five individual groups can be held simultaneously, and his goal is to reach 10 individual groups.

Thiel stresses that education within any community is imperative. Today, SonBridge and partners offer many classes. Some of the classes are ESL (English as a Second Language), financial management, grief recovery and life transitions. “I envision classes offered in parenting, cooking, addiction recovery, stress reduction, exercise for health and longevity, aging gracefully, diabetes reduction, and oral health," says Thiel. "Many of these classes will have both a children’s track as well as an adult track to build family health and resiliency."

As the education center expands, volunteers have become the primary source of support. More than 200 volunteers provide the equivalent of more than 15 full-time employees. These volunteers enable the operations of the Thrift and Gift Store, which provides the cornerstone of funding for the operating budget of SonBridge. “I am so amazed by the vitality and health of Adventist members who serve through their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s,” says Thiel.

SonBridge supports local Adventist education by providing work opportunities to students from nearby Walla Walla Valley Academy. They are a vital part of the labor force and receive the opportunity to earn money for their education while learning a variety of valuable skills.

There are many ways for others to join the effort of making the expansion a success. Individual donations from individuals drive the educational programs and social services forward. If you would like be a part of this effort, visit www.SonBridge.org/give to support continuing construction and programming. On that page, you can also become one of the 1,000 Friends of SonBridge, who pledge to give $10 per month — a small amount these days, but imagine the accomplishments when multiplied by 1,000 friends like yourself.

You are also invited to donate your unique skills, expertise and enthusiasm to help build the education center, as many others have done before. Volunteer and serve at SonBridge on a regular basis if you live in the Walla Walla Valley. Or if you are driving through the area, stop by and come visit the staff and facility. Finally, please join the effort in praying for SonBridge, its staff, the construction and the programs it continues to offer.

Thiel shares his long-term goals he has for the organization. He hopes to provide a richer and more meaningful atmosphere for those who volunteer and that people of all ages will be inspired to volunteer. He also hopes other local Adventist churches will become involved as constituent churches and that SonBridge can become a training ground for future community leaders who attend Walla Walla Valley Academy and Walla Walla University.

At the end of each day, Thiel shares, his passion for the purpose of SonBridge is to devote valuable time and resources to provide help to the hurting and underserved population within the Walla Walla Valley. Visit SonBridge or call 509-529-3100 if you would like to be a part of this journey with us.

Kevin McGill and Shelby Shewchuk, SonBridge volunteers

August 24, 2016 / Upper Columbia Conference
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