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Most people will do whatever it takes to avoid getting into a dentist chair, but Elizabeth Diehl couldn’t wait.

“I haven’t been to the dentist in six years,” Diehl said. “And it’s not because I didn’t want it. I can’t afford it.”

Diehl, her husband, Gary, and 10-month-old daughter Laelani had been homeless for months before moving into Community Outreach Inc. in April. The family, who originally hail from Montana, said they were shocked to see more than 30 vendors offering free services all under one roof Thursday afternoon at the seventh annual Benton County Project Resource Connect at the First United Methodist Church.

The event is designed to be a one-stop spot for free medical treatment, food, clothing and information from local service organizations for low-income and homeless residents.

“Most places, when you’re down, they kick you in the face,” Gary Diehl said. “But here, they actually offer you a hand up. That’s really rare to see people actually helping each other instead of tearing them down more.”

From the dental work provided by Capital Dental and eye exams from Melissa Frost Eye Care to the clothing, food, and a bike, the Diehl family estimated they received several thousand dollars worth of services Thursday.

“This makes a huge difference,” Gary Diehl said. “It goes from being a completely impossible fantasy to a reality. It’s right here in front of us. It’s amazing.”

“Even with a baby, wherever we went in Montana we turned away,” Elizabeth Diehl said. “Here, they said no matter what, you’re not sleeping outside tonight. We’ll do whatever it takes.”

Coordinator Jessica Taylor, of Community Outreach, said the number of vendors participating in this year’s event likely was a record.

“Seeing this many vendors tells me this community really wants to work together to help,” Taylor said. “Everyone is still really excited to do this. We had representatives from organizations meeting once a week for months to make sure this happened.”

Chris Hawkins, family outreach and crisis response representative at the Corvallis School District, said Thursday marked the first time the district joined Project Resource Connect. Hawkins said the district has 249 students listed as homeless, but with a third of all the district's students on the free or reduced price program, it’s likely there are more unlisted.

“It’s pretty shocking how many homeless students we have,” Hawkins said. “They really are invisible. And so many families don’t know there are ways to support them.”

Chris Gray, a harm reduction specialist for Benton County Mental Health, said he’s helped provide HIV and hepatitis C testing at Project Resource Connect for several years, and that Thursday’s turnout might have been a record.

“Sometimes we forget those people in need around us and they become invisible,” Gray said. “But it’s obvious many are struggling and need our help.”

Gray said he often hears that by providing so many services, he might be helping to attract homeless and low-income individuals to Benton County.

“What I say to that, is these people are Americans; they’re not immigrants,” Gray said. “They are veterans. They are mothers and fathers. They are families. And they are struggling. It is our duty as a community and as a country to address poverty and mental health and addiction.”

And if Benton County stopped providing the services?

“People would still be struggling, probably more. Just because you don’t see homelessness every day, doesn’t mean they’re not there anymore. It’s all around us,” Gray said. “I live in this community and I want to invest in its health and well-being. It’s not going to get better by ignoring the people who are suffering.”

Other organizations offering services Thursday included ACME Counseling, LOVE Inc., Jackson Street Youth Shelter, the Corvallis Daytime Drop-In Center, CARDVA, the Community Services Consortium in Albany, Heartland Humane Society, Corvallis Bike Collective, Oxford House, Faith Works, Selfie Salon, Deep Roots Therapeutic Massage and Goodwill Job Connection. 

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