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Dayton UCC becomes DSHS assisting agency

In June, First Congregational Church-United Church of Christ in Dayton, one of the Touchet Valley’s oldest churches, became an assisting agency for people accessing Washington Connection, the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) online benefit portal. 


Marj Johnston

Following a site visit in June, the DSHS provided a grant to purchase portable computers and a portable scanner volunteers can use at the church or take to other sites in Columbia County.

“It’s a slow process to re-educate people who are used to going to a DSHS office and applying in person,” said the Rev. Marj Johnston, pastor, who is training volunteers to accompany people to apply online for food, cash and medical assistance; drug and alcohol treatment services; childcare services; changes of circumstances, and eligibility reviews.

“Applying online can be challenging and daunting, so church members and community members are learning the application process and what the website allows,” she said.  “We started slow over the summe to work out the quirks of the system.”

Marj said she and the church are doing what they believe they can and should do to help people in need access the services they need.

Dayton, a community of 2,600 and the county seat, is one of two incorporated towns in the county.

The mobile computer/scanner will be available to go to different locations in the county, but those who can are encouraged to come to the church, where volunteers are available to assist people from 1 to 4 p.m., Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and by appointment 509-382-2471. 

In summer, the demand has been slow, giving time for re-learning the program.  New volunteers are being recruited and trained.

“It doesn’t take many people or much time to help remove barriers,” Marj said.

The local Community Services Office for DSHS was closed in the summer of 2012.  Since then, people have accessed services through a monthly visit of the DSHS Mobile Community Services unit, which will now come just quarterly, and through driving 30 miles to the DSHS office in Walla Walla.  That may be hard for someone holding two or three part-time jobs and no money for gas.

They can also use toll-free numbers, or go online on their own at home or at the library in Dayton, which has the icon for access set up on its computers. 

First Congregational Church-UCC received a $2,000 grant from the DSHS, out of $450,000 available in Washington, to buy equipment to set-up a workstation to provide support for those who want or need assistance in the process. 

The Washington Connection online benefit portal begins the process for individuals and families needing services.  As state agencies are streamlined, the DSHS expects online access will be the primary means for conducting their work in the future.

When the Affordable Care Act is implemented on Jan. 1, 2014, the DSHS will not handle Medicaid, so people will apply online for that through another online access point.

 First Congregational UCC, with 100 members and 55 attending Sundays, has a tradition of being active in the community as a congregation and as individual members.

Marj, who began as pastor there in November 2011, has a background in human services that lends support to these kinds of opportunities.

“Most churches may be hands off based on separation of church and state, but this is a natural part of what I’ve done much of my career.  It also fits in with the UCC approach of justice, inclusivity and accessibility,” she said.

Marj worked with the Spokane Neighborhood Action Program and Shalom Ministries in Spokane, where she helped people access assistance.  She also did that at a soup kitchen on the South Side of Chicago, while in seminary, and as a church administrative assistant in Silver Spring, Md.  She also previously served meals to homeless people downtown while associate pastor at Westminster Congregational UCC.

First Congregational UCC in Dayton also hosts three AA group, a new NA groop and a grief support group for people who have lost jobs, health or loved ones.

“We are a welcoming place in the building and the community,” she said.

She is present from 9 to 11 a.m., Thursdays, at a local bakery, where she has a discussion group on the issues of the day—Syria, gun control, children’s safety and more.  About six to 12 come.

 For information, call 509-382-2471 or email

Copyright © September 2013 - Pacific Northwest Conference UCC News


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