Hot potato: How a Salem woman came up with an idea to keep unsheltered people warm and full

From left, Donna Barcus, Hailyn Ayers, Mariah Butts and Aaliyah Tucker at the Fairgrounds Pavilion making Valentine’s Day bags with flowers for unsheltered women. (Courtesy/ Lisa Letney)

When high water flooded Wallace Marine Park and Cascades Gateway Park this winter, Lisa Letney laid awake hearing the sounds of a storm that would wash away tents and belongings in areas where Salem has allowed unsheltered people to camp because of Covid.

After reading a news article about the flooding, she thought about how she could help. Blankets would get soaked and buying lots of handwarmers could get costly, so she harkened back to an old school style of warming up – hot potatoes.

“In the old days you would put hot potatoes in your pocket when you were walking to school,” she said, recalling a story her grandmother had told her.

The potatoes served a dual purpose: they kept people warm and it filled their bellies.

Letney put a shout out on Facebook in January, and within a couple of days volunteers baked 80 pounds of potatoes. Many of those who helped were volunteering for the first time, she said.

She and other volunteers passed them out to people under the Market Street Bridge and in Wallace Marine Park in mid-January.

While she was there, she met women living in the encampments that helped her hand out the spuds. She choked up thinking about a woman who had no toilet, running water or a garbage can that only asked her for a candle so she could keep warm.

“It’s the women that are keeping me going. Going out there and recognizing them, it made it real when I went out there,” Letney said.

Letney had a Facebook page she created for her soap making projects called Dirty Little Hippy, but turned that into a page to ask for donations and to rally volunteers. She wants to keep it simple. A 10-pound bag of potatoes costs about $2.50 at Grocery Outlet, Letney said.

In the last month, her group has handed out 400 pounds of hot baked potatoes and has also given out emergency blankets, gloves, hats, scarves and earmuffs.

“It’s completely exploded,” she said.

On Valentine’s Day, volunteers with Dirty Little Hippy, Caring Connections, Riot with Love, Kindness Closet and Helping Hands Resources hosted an event at Wallace Marine and the Fairgrounds Pavilion to hand out food, clothes and other warming items.

Letney keeps a spreadsheet of all the handwarmers and other items that have been distributed.

Now, she’s turned her attention to collecting tampons for the women in the camps. People can donate using her Amazon wishlist

Letney said there are people who want to help, but don’t know where to start. Baking potatoes is something people can easily do, she said.

“There’s literally no risk in it,” Letney said. “That was appealing to people.”

She’s thinking of creating a website for people to sign up to volunteer and renting a storage unit to collect donations because of how her potato idea has taken off.

But it won’t always be spuds. Letney is already thinking about what she could hand out in summer, like frozen water bottles.

“I didn’t expect all this to happen so big and so fast, but it feels right and I’m going to keep going with the flow,” Letney said. 

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected].

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