SLF History
The Origin of Salem Leadership Foundation PDF Print E-mail

Salem is a magnet for people in need.  For 120 years the Oregon Constitution required that the state institutions of care or incarceration be located near Salem.  The Prisons.  The Insane Asylum.  The Home for the Feeble-Minded.  The Deaf School and the Blind School.  Chemawa Indian School.  The Tuberculosis Hospital.  The Girls (Hillcrest) and Boys (McLaren) Reform Schools.  And many more.  Some people-in-need came here on their own seeking help; others were sent by a judge’s order.  Before the reforms of the 1970s our community was able to keep this ‘second Salem’ hidden and discreet.  Since then, we’ve had to face the fact that Salem-Keizer (and by extension Marion County) is a strong magnet for people in need.  

In 1993, the people of Salem awoke with a shock to the newspaper headlines:  “Salem Plagued by Youth Gangs.”  Legislator Peter Courtney immediately convened a blue-ribbon Gang Intervention Task Force to quell the crisis.

Three Epiphanies PDF Print E-mail

As SLF helped churches deploy the Two-Pronged Approach, especially prong #1 (school partnerships), we noticed something.  To use the language of faith, “we had an epiphany.”  Three, actually.  As noted earlier, SLF was practicing the “suburban-assets-helping-the-inner-city” model used in most American big-cities.  And we were successful—many churches and many faith-based volunteers were driving into Salem’s central core to help our most at-risk schools and neighborhoods.  But there was a problem—Epiphany #1: After a year or so, their fortitude waned, their numbers dropped.  The longer the distance a volunteer had to go, the shorter their commitment.  If it was “in sight” it was “in mind,” to put a twist on a familiar axiom.  Similarly, if the volunteer’s good work was  “out of sight” it eventually became “out of mind” despite the best of intentions.   

At the same time we noticed that Salem-Keizer’s social ills were not confined to the inner city—Epiphany #2.  The suburban neighborhoods have great needs, too.  In fact, there’s more material poverty than anyone knew (or was willing to admit), in tandem with what has been called the “poverty of affluence.”  Statistics showed that kids in the suburbs were using drugs, getting pregnant, and committing crimes at about the same rate as kids in the inner-city neighborhoods.

SLF Growth and Ministry Expansion PDF Print E-mail


For the first four years, Salem Leadership Foundation (SLF) was comprised of its board of directors and one employee, Sam Skillern, who worked out of his basement office.  SLF quickly established itself as an effective bridge-builder between the churches and the larger community.  The early focus was on school-church partnerships, with the blessings of the Salem/Keizer District superintendent. 

At the time, Salem had four of the top-10 poverty schools in Oregon, and a total of eight schools where more than 75% of the students were on the free-lunch program.  Two pilot projects were established:  Fantastic Fridays (after-school) at Grant Elementary, and Reading Buddies (literacy) at Highland.  Two churches (Salem Alliance at Grant and First Baptist at Highland) and dozens of volunteers from the faith community responded strongly, which led to partnerships at several more schools (up to 25 today). 

The "Lightning Rod" Concept PDF Print E-mail

During this time, we decided to test-drive the theory that a person who lived, worked, and worshipped in a particular geographic area could make a huge impact for good.  Somebody once told Sam Skillern he was like a “Lightning Rod.”  Not in the negative connotation, i.e., a political muckraker or someone who demands attention.   But rather, like the literal lightning rod, which is firmly rooted in the ground and both attracts and disperses energy with positive results.

Before asking for major support we were determined to conduct  ‘product testing’ to make sure our entrepreneurial idea had proven potential.  Sam Skillern was our working model in the North-central Keystone Area.  We then contracted with a long-time SLF associate on a part-time basis in the McKay area.  Several months later, we branched out with another part-time contractor in the South-central area, followed by a half-timer in West Salem, who became our first full-time Lightning Rod in July 2007.  Our theory and our expectations were met.  In fact, exceeded.  Having a committed person in a Keystone Area—even half time!—returns huge dividends on the investment.  Not just for SLF, but for the partners, people and neighborhoods of that area.


Copyright © 2017. Salem Leadership Foundation. Designed by