City creates award to honor “The Potato Lady” of Salem

In the month since Lisa Letney died, her legacy has inspired more people to take their advocacy to the streets of Salem.

Now, an annual city award in her honor will recognize that impact, paying tribute to a Salemite who volunteers service to the unsheltered and those at risk of becoming unsheltered.

Letney, known as “The Potato Lady,” was described by family as a fearless advocate with a drive to call out injustice. Her advocacy included donating much-needed supplies, and handing out hot potatoes as a source of warmth and food.

Since her death, volunteers have handed out hundreds of pounds of potatoes on cold nights, and her family said her memory has created many first-time volunteers.

Salem city councilors on Monday unanimously created the Lisa Letney Award, which will be given out at the City’s annual volunteer award ceremony.

Vanessa Nordyke introduced the motion, and said in an interview with Salem Reporter that she wanted to make sure Letney’s work would not be forgotten. The two met while doing advocacy work at the Oregon State Fairgrounds.

Salem previously did not have an award specifically for homeless outreach. 

“I want to have an award for volunteers that specifically recognizes and applauds that work, because there are hundreds of people who do similar types of volunteer service,” Nordyke said. 

She listed examples of people who organize clothing drives, volunteer at sheltersand organize supplies for at-risk youth. 

“There are a lot of people who do that work right now, and I think it’s high time that we as a city include that particular type of critical service as part of our annual volunteer award ceremony,” she said.

Michelle Bryant, Letney’s sister, said she and the family appreciate that there will be a moment to honor Letney every year. She said the family is having an especially difficult time with the holidays approaching.

“She was the Potato Lady, and she did amazing work. But she was also a lot more than that,” Bryant said.

Nordyke got permission from the family to present the motion, and Bryant tuned in to watch the whole city council meeting. She said she looks forward to seeing who will receive the award every year. 

“It does bring some joy to us as we’re grieving. Just to know that her name will be heard, people will know who she is,” Bryant said. “She would be honored.”

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.