The executive director of Oregon Coast Community Action is getting ready to say goodbye to a position he has held since 2013.
“My retirement is about a bunch of things, but mainly it is just time,” Mike Lehman said.
The former state representative stepped into the role of director for the Coos, Curry and Douglas County nonprofit almost seven years ago to the day. Lehman will be stepping back out of the role on March 4, leaving behind a happier organization of 240 employees and a budget of $11 million, pleased to have seen it accomplish many of its long term projects.
But when he became director, it was in the midst of controversy surrounding financial struggle.
“There was a structure at the time that had two to four family members or close friends working in management positions,” Lehman remembered. “The internal process was terrible with lots of negativity. On the previous director’s watch, it was a mess.”
Lehman began the process of fixing ORCCA from the inside out, starting with spending “two years just not being my predecessor.”
“Part of that was I’m an open communicator,” he said. “When I would go out in the community, people knew my face. I had a meeting with the editor of The World (Clark Walworth) at the time and the paper was difficult on my predecessor (Mary Schoen-Clark). The editor said, ‘This meeting is an incredible difference already.’”
According to Lehman, he suspected that ORCCA’s finances weren’t as bad as they looked since, at the time, there was a lot of turnover in the finance director position before he took charge.
“It was more confusion than bad shape,” he said. “For me, it was a matter of getting it stabilized.”
People began to notice improvement quickly. Lehman recalled one of the old board members visiting him at the LaClair Street office and hearing “raucous laughter” down the hall.
“She said that you’d never have heard that before,” Lehman said. “So, as far as my accomplishments, my biggest one is staff satisfaction. It is making people feel comfortable.”
Lehman is also proud that within the last month, ORCCA has seen two of its long term projects finished. Deer Springs Terrace, supportive housing for homeless veterans, had its grand opening in North Bend on Jan. 24.
Then on Feb. 7, ORCCA and South Coast Community Action is holding a grand opening for its $2 million facility remodel for its Brookings Head Start location.
“Those were two big projects lingering on my desk when I got here and had lots of ups and downs,” Lehman said. “Getting those accomplished is huge. I’m proud and relieved.”
But for Lehman, his biggest passion is helping children in the foster care system. He has been a foster parent for almost 14 years. During his time at ORCCA, which is a network of programs focused on feeding, educating and keeping people warm, he saw the group FAST become a robust piece of that network.
“One thing I’ve seen is a news piece about a drug bust and 12 kids are removed,” he said. “Those 12 kids go into the foster care system, but then mom gets cleaned up and returns to try and get her kids back. Thing is, you’ve lost all your furnishings, your belongings and you can’t get your kids returned to you without a suitable place to live. We did FAST housing where moms, sometimes dads, get visitations with children in foster care and slowly transition into the new home ... We have kids with moms and dads today that wouldn’t be there without this.”
However, in a press release about his departure, it stated that “Lehman was particularly concerned about the slow progress the community has made on building low-cost housing and reducing the number of homeless folks in the area.”
“It really bothers me that we have not done enough to get folks off the streets, particularly families with children and people with disabilities,” Lehman said in the release.
To The World, Lehman added that he’d like to see more local entities figure out how to better serve parents in keeping families together. He pointed to the “surprising number of child removals in the delivery room” after pregnant mothers have used drugs and as a result lose their children.
“I know it hurts and there should be a way to help those moms and give them a chance to help those kids,” Lehman said. “That is a black mark on this society, on this community.”
Over the past few years, Lehman has also been a guiding force in the homeless discussion. When asked if he will continue that work after he retires from ORCCA, he says he hopes so.
“What we need to come to realize is we won’t solve the crisis with anything but houses,” Lehman said. “People are dying, losing their children and going deeper into crisis without homes. We have to do something now like the encampment at the Methodist Church. That is a ‘now’ solution.”
Though Lehman hopes to continue being part of the homeless conversation after retirement, he said he also wants to give the incoming director room to work without them having to look over their shoulder for him. (ORCCA has narrowed its search to three candidates and held a meet-and-greet Monday night.)
“I will stay engaged in the community somehow,” Lehman promised. “The staff and community is wonderful … The community has probably given me more than I’ve given back.”