Portland woman honored for vaccinating, educating and feeding immigrants and refugees

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head shot of Betty Brown
Betty Brown, executive director of Portland Open Bible Community Pantry

When Betty Brown surveys the free food line that forms twice a week at the Portland Open Bible Church, she sees a tapestry of immigrant and refugee groups represented. She sees members of Russian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Latino and Arab communities, among others. It is a source of pride—to simultaneously support and celebrate the diversity of the church’s Southeast Portland neighborhood, where the church estimates over 25% of the local community sometimes goes hungry.

“I always say if you come here in the summer it’s going to look like the United Nations,” said Brown, executive director of the Portland Open Bible Community Pantry. “There are always all these people of different ethnicities just hanging out, talking, waiting for the pantry to open.”

When the pandemic hit, the number of people coming to the pantry doubled to about 4,000 people a month. Brown, a registered nurse, knew that a vaccine would be crucial, especially for marginalized communities that are historically more vulnerable to disease.

But after the vaccine was released in Dec. 2020, many in the church’s community were hesitant. They feared that immigrant, refugee and minority groups might be targeted; that instead of protecting them from COVID-19, the vaccine was meant to hurt them and wipe out ethnic groups and undocumented immigrants. Others feared the vaccine’s side effects. Some had read stories about people developing heart conditions, for example, and it was just enough information to fan the flames and cause a panic.   Brown, herself, was a little suspicious about how fast the vaccine was created.

“I had medical professionals whom I respected saying things to me like, ‘Betty, do you know how long it took to develop the polio vaccine?’,” Brown said.

But Brown also knew the dangers of misinformation.

“Over my career as a nurse I’ve seen way too many people die unnecessarily, essentially from lack of information or bad information,” Brown said.

She arranged for culturally specific medical professionals to come to the church and speak to community members, in their language or via interpreters, to explain how the vaccine was created and its risks. Community members asked a lot of questions, and the medical professionals listened, empathized and answered them. Slowly, trust and confidence grew.

Brown applied for every grant she could and rallied community partners to help stage weekly vaccination clinics. She made the clinics fun for the whole family and tailored to ethnicities, offering culturally specific food boxes. The church also offered housing resources and harm reduction supplies to its unhoused neighbors.

photo of people working at a table with fruit on it in a park, outside, wearing masks, alongside a vaccination clinic
Portland Open Bible Community Pantry and community partners hold a large-scale vaccination event at SE Portland’s Lents Park, Dec. 2021.

Her efforts helped vaccinate almost 1,000 people and distribute around 4,000 food boxes and hot meals between June 2021 and March 2023. Her team distributed masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, school supplies and more.

For these reasons, Betty Brown has been named Oregon’s 2023 Immunization Champion. The award is given jointly by the Association of Immunization Managers (AIM) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it honors individuals who go above and beyond to promote immunizations in their communities.

photo of five people smiling and standing in front of an Oregon Food Bank deliver truck
Portland Open Bible Community Pantry staff

Brown launched the community pantry in 2015, after she noticed that a string of church break-ins and robberies had one thing in common: The people stole food. They took it from the pantry’s shelves and refrigerators, and Betty told the church’s senior pastor (who also happened to be her husband) that she wanted to start feeding the community from the church. After partnering primarily with Oregon Food Bank, the pantry has been going strong ever since, serving over 60,000 people in 2022.  

The pandemic also motivated Brown and her staff to revolutionize the pantry model, which has since caught on elsewhere. Brown’s son, Aaron Brown, has since taken over as the church’s senior pastor, and the success they experienced during the pandemic of reaching specific ethnic communities with education and resources inspired them.

“At the beginning of the pandemic we had to move our pantry outside to keep people safe, and I remember that first summer looking at all the seniors standing in line and thought, ‘what are they going to do when it gets cold and rainy?’ Not to mention single moms with kids or people with disabilities.”  

With the help of Brown’s son and his tech-savvy “young friends,” the church launched a “made to order” food box program where people can design and pre-order food boxes for their culture, to be picked up on site in a drive-thru so they don’t have to stand in line. They also started delivering food to home-bound people. In addition to promoting safety, this ensured people received food they knew and liked, instead of turning away certain vegetables, for example, that they didn’t recognize or know how to cook.  

Throughout all of it, Brown is repeatedly humbled and proud of the support she gets among community partners, especially Oregon Food Bank which helped launch the pantry and donates much of the food. When she asked them for financial help with the made-to-order food box program, they responded, “How much?”

Brown explained they needed about $5,000 to design and support the website.

“They said, ‘That’s it? $5,000? Done.’”

Within two months, the website was up and running. Now, the made-to-order food box model has spread far and wide.

“I had no idea Oregon Food Bank was talking about it and spreading the word,” Brown said, “until we started getting phone calls from people in different parts of the country saying ‘hey, we read about this, tell us more about it.’ A group in Tennessee just recently got the funding they needed to get it going.”

As the pandemic recedes into the background, the lessons learned by Betty Brown and her team are still front and center. They have no plans to slow down, and next up on their agenda is, hopefully, a program that offers in-person nutrition classes tailored to ethnic groups. One week will focus on Russian food, the next week Vietnamese, and so on.

“That’s where I see a need right now,” Brown said. “One of our goals is to engage immigrants, people of different nationalities, and continue to build a place that is safe and culturally relevant. And when something crazy hits, like a pandemic, the community looks to us because they’ve been hanging out here with us for a while.”

To learn more about the Portland Open Bible Community Pantry, visit the website, email pantry@pobcpantry.com or call (503) 442-8228. To donate, click here.

Click here to read more about Betty Brown and the 2023 AIM Champions from all 50 states.