PORTLAND, Ore. – Emily Menges’ leadership style is not a vocal one. By nature, it’s one that leverages example. Where others yell, she runs. Where others explain, she tends to do.
So, when two weeks ago, she stepped in front of her team to explain the importance of her club’s Stand Together Week – running now through June 15 in locations across Portland – it was both a natural and unnatural role. She’s not the first Portland Thorns FC player you’d think of when it comes to addressing a room, but when it comes to community outreach, her actions-over-words approach embodies what Stand Together Week is all about.
“The community, and our fans in particular, watch us, follow our passion and support us, every week,” Menges told her teammates. “It’s cool for us to then go out and link up with them, their passions, the things they find most important, the things they do Saturday mornings while we’re here … We’re both next to each other doing the same work, doing the same amount of good.”
Stand Together Week – Portland Timbers’ annual initiative devoted to volunteerism and service across the community – kicked off on Saturday morning. During the week, the Timbers, Thorns and T2 players, coaches and staff will be take part alongside volunteers in over 30 projects across greater Portland, working with the club’s commercial partners to support a series of area nonprofit projects and volunteer organizations.
It’s a week that melds perfectly with Menges’ history. The Thorns 2016 NWSL Best XI defender comes from a background of community service, defined by a stay-at-home mom who, she remembers, spent a dominant part of her spare time seeking out ways to contribute to the Long Island, New York, community around them.
“(She) was literally always doing something,” Menges remembers. “That has been ingrained in me early, so as kids, we were always volunteering, doing random stuff.”
It made service a priority when Menges joined the Thorns out of college in 2014, though with no roots on the West Coast, the Georgetown grad didn’t have any initial avenues into the community. At home, she had her mother, her school connections, and the relationships she’d built over a lifetime on the East Coast. When she was new to Portland, though, Menges didn’t know where to start.
“I struggled a little bit with, "OK, now I’m here. I’m in a new city. What can I do?'” Menges remembered, recalling how Stand Together helped paved the way at her new home. “I think if people are given this opportunity to give back, they will. Or, a foundation is put in front of them, they’re going to donate.
“Everyone wants to help, but [Stand Together] is just a cool way to get our toes wet and see what we’re actually interested in, and hopefully, girls will continue to reach out to those foundations that they’ve made a connection with.”
Most Timbers and Thorns players will be participating in at least one project during Stand Together Week. Menges has picked out two. On June 12, she joined four other Thorns and T2 players at a Willamette River cleanup event, hosted by Willamette Riverkeeper, an organization devoted to the water quality and the habitat of one of the Pacific Northwest’s most famous bodies of water.
The next day, Menges will be working with Friends of Trees to care for newly planted trees and scrubs in the Columbia River Gorge.
“I’ve been following the whole disaster around the Columbia River Gorge over the last year,” Menges said, alluding to the damage done by the Eagle Creek Fire that started Sept. 2, 2017. “So, I was following that and I saw that (project) on the list, and immediately decided to do it.”
Now in her fifth year in Portland, Menges has used Stand Together to help rebuild part of what she left back home. The networks she left behind would have been difficult to rebuild without a project like Stand Together, particularly given the demands of embarking on a professional soccer career. Taking part in her fifth Stand Together week, Menges has seen how the initiative helps solidify players’ connections with their new home.
“It’s cool being in a different city, figuring out what this city is about, and what this club is about,” she says. “Finding out what this city finds important, and especially what the club has decided to do, the three categories that we’ve latched onto” – Stand Together’s commitment to targeted programs, deep partnerships and philanthropic giving – “it’s fun to bridge that gap with us in the community, between what we all think is important and the service aspect – spreading the importance of giving back.”
And for Menges, as she explained to her teammates, one of the most important parts of that service is who she’s working alongside: the people who are usually a wall and a sideline away; those whose community she’s come to call her own.
“We’re always separated, here,” at Providence Park, she explains. “The community is watching, and we’re on the field. I think it’s a cool opportunity for us to go out into the community and let them lead the way, and for us to help them, follow what they’re passionate about, helping them do some good but also getting our hands dirty planting trees or shoveling mulch or cleaning books at a book bank …
“They’re not in the stands. We’re not on the field. We’re all intermixed. Together."