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From the Desk Of Vanessa Nordyke

Written by  Vanessa Nordyke on Nov. 8th, 2023
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Salem City Councilor Vanessa Nordyke is a mental health advocate, dogmom, and the Executive Director of CASA of Marion County.

Born and raised on Croisan Creek Road, I serve the community that raised me. I’ve worked on projects for at-risk youth, military veterans, domestic violence survivors, persons struggling with mental illness and substance abuse, and more. I spent 15 years as an Assistant Attorney General at the Oregon Department of Justice, handling hundreds of cases involving child molesters and violent criminals. I coached high school students, co-founded the Marion County Veterans Treatment Court, and created a wellness movement within the legal profession as the youngest-ever elected Oregon State Bar President. 

I wanted to lead and innovate, so I left DOJ to become the Executive Director of CASA of Marion County. Finally, I could help break the cycle of abuse. CASA advocates for abused children in foster care. Our Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) are volunteers who speak up for foster children’s educational, medical, behavioral, and physical safety needs. CASAs help kids find safety and stability, better grades and brighter futures. I was shocked to learn that we only have enough CASA volunteers to serve just 65% of foster kids. I need your help to reach 100%. Meet me for coffee (my treat) and I will show you how 8-12 hours a month can change a child’s story. Let’s show these kids that adversity doesn’t have to be a life sentence. In fact, it can be a catalyst. 

I would know. Due to hearing loss in my right ear, the school district placed me on the bus with children with disabilities. I guessed I didn’t belong with the “normal” kids. But since I couldn’t communicate with anybody on the “short bus”, I guessed I didn’t belong anywhere else. I spent a lot of time alone on the playground. But adversity became my catalyst, as I set out to prove people wrong. I want foster kids to know they can do it, too. 

CASA changed the way I see the world. I went from a government agency of 1,100-plus employees to a nonprofit of 6 employees. Every decision I make impacts my bottom line, so I run my nonprofit like a business. The way I see government changed. As a City Councilor, I challenge city staff to explore new cost recoveries, uncover hidden efficiencies, and increase transparency, all while addressing the demands of our growing city. 

As our city grows, the demand for services grows. At the Salem Public Library, we help job seekers and lead story time for children. At Center 50+, we teach fitness, deliver Meals on Wheels, and serve seniors citywide. We gave millions of dollars in grants and tax incentives to help businesses locate and expand in Salem. All of these services build community; all are at risk under our budget deficit. 

Running a city of 177,000 and counting is not easy. Everything got harder on July 10, when five members of City Council voted to pass the payroll tax without prior voter approval.  To the citizens who testified against the payroll tax, I heard you loud and clear. The single mother who talked about the impact that this tax would have on her ability to take care of three children brought me close to tears because I know people just like her. 

Her testimony amplifies the experience of the thousands of Salem residents on the brink of homelessness; i.e., the “almost homeless.” The “almost homeless” includes the 25% of Salem renters who spend over 50% of their income on rent. The “almost homeless” includes the 8,000 people–low-income seniors, veterans, persons with disabilities, children and families–who live in housing run by the Salem Housing Authority. The “almost homeless” includes a lot of people who play by the rules and work 40 hours (or more) each week to provide a better life for their children. Many of the “almost homeless” would be devastated by the payroll tax. So what happens now? If the public votes down the tax, the conversation about our looming deficit does not end. I hope it is a new beginning. I will continue to push for affordable housing and services that reward hard work and build self-sufficiency. Adversity can be a catalyst. Let’s work together to overcome the challenges of today.

 Vanessa Nordyke

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