The Conversation Partner Project

Rose Rustin was 40 years old in 1972 when she married Portland resident Arnold Rustin. As usually happens, his friends became hers, and hers his. When one of her new friends, Joan Liebreich, invited Rose to join the National Council of Jewish Women, she jumped at the chance, thinking it was a good way to make a difference … and to make more Jewish friends.

That decision changed her life. Already an active community volunteer, she added Jewish projects to her busy schedule. Since then she has helped on countless committees, served as president of the National Council of Jewish Women and of Congregation Beth Israel, and today is a volunteer archivist at the Oregon Jewish Museum.

Rose moved to Terwilliger Plaza, a continuing care community,in December 2009. Her husband had passed away the year before and, although she was still active, her doctor thought that the time was soon coming when she wouldn’t be able to care for a home and garden. “It was prudent to move while I could still do that by myself.” To her surprise, she loved her new apartment and her life at Terwilliger Plaza. Her community involvement, both Jewish and secular, continued unabated, and she was happy to learn that Terwilliger Plaza engages in projects with other nonprofit organizations to fulfill its charitable mission. The committee responsible for social engagement, however, had sputtered of late, and its programs had languished. Rose naturally volunteered to lend a hand. In 2011, with the help of other volunteers and later a staff person, she reorganized the program. They began to reach out to organizations such as Lift Urban Portland and Cedar Sinai Park to fundraise, sponsor events and create partnership projects.

Rose met with Cedar Sinai Park CEO David Fuks to explore partnership possibilities there. He suggested they look to the Rose Schnitzer Tower, one of four downtown affordable housing build- ings owned by Cedar Sinai Park and all relatively close to Terwilliger Plaza. Rose then met with David VanLoo, the service coordinator in charge of activities.

English is a second language for the 40% of the Tower residents who are im- migrants. Most speak Russian, Mandarin or Farsi. Improving their English is important as they navigate the community, enhance their lives and work toward achieving citizenship. “We put our heads together,”Rose says. “What is needed here? What can we do?” Language classes were already available. What the people lacked was opportunities for improving their skills through low-stress social conversation.

The result is The Conversation Partner Project, and it is simply a weekly opportunity for interested residents of Terwilliger Plaza and Rose Schnitzer Tower to sit down, have a snack and chat. For the first five weeks the Terwilliger Plaza bus shuttles volunteers to the Tower; the second five weeks, it drives Tower residents to Terwilliger.
“A good number of the Terwilliger participants are themselves immigrants,” Rose notes, “so they understand the value of conversation as a learning tool.”
Irene Etlinger, a Terwilliger Plaza vol- unteer, is a case in point. “I am a refugee myself,” she says.

You don’t have to be a master of English. You just have to enjoy people and get them interested. I like to talk about recipes. One Iranian lady gave me a wonderful recipe that uses pomegranates.”

Rose explains just how informal the sessions are. “An instructor is available as a resource but only participates when someone asks,” she says. “There is a list of suggested topics, but you can ignore it. You can visit one-on-one or sit in a small group. You can even just sit and watch if you are shy. “It surprised me how much they like to talk about American politics, but it makes sense,” says Rose. “One of the men told me, ‘we didn’t get to talk like this in our country. Here in America, we can say what we like and don’t like about politics.’That’s pretty profound. Quite unexpected by most of us are the bonds that form. It’s not uncommon for a Tower resident to invite a partner, ‘Come up to my apartment and I’ll cook you lunch from my native country.’ ” At the end of the 10 weeks, they go on an outing to celebrate their progress as well as their growing friendships. Together they have explored places like OMSI, the Japanese Gardens and the Portland Art Museum.

Parvis Farhand, a Rose Schnitzer Tower resident from Iran, speaks highly of the program. “This is very good for us. I’ve been coming for two years. Every time, it works,” he says.

Both Terwilliger Plaza and Cedar Sinai Park think so highly of this program and its value to their respective residents that they are planning a 2015 expansion into a second CSP residence, The 1200 Building. Rose says the programs will likely begin separately and then potentially could merge, rotating from one building to another week to week. One thing is certain, though: they will have all the volunteers they need.
“We all love doing this,” Rose says.

Liz Rabiner Lippoff is a medical marketing consultant, freelance writer and community volunteer.

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