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Ben Sand still remembers getting that phone call in 2005: two teen boys he’d seen commit their lives to Jesus that summer had shot someone, then disappeared.

As a regional Young Life leader in Portland, he’d spent months mentoring those young men. He’d invited them into his home, gone with them to camp. He’d tried to be the Good Samaritan to them, going above and beyond to care for them after systemic and economic injustice knocked them to the side of the road.

“Does this even work?” he thought. A discouraging reality set in: He could pick someone up off the road every day of his life, but they would always have scars, and unless things changed at a systemic level there would always be someone else left beaten the next morning.

As he studied the parable of the Good Samaritan during that season of confusion, a new set of questions arose for Sand: Why was the road from Jerusalem to Jericho so dangerous in the first place? And what could he do to make sure no one gets left for dead on the side of the road again?

For Sand, the answers lie largely in developing stronger, more diverse leaders for the future – leaders who can help change the systems that serve Oregonians.

“For the systems to change, we have to make a demonstrative investment in ensuring that the leadership of our region reflects the people who live here,” Sand says.

So that year, his second at George Fox Evangelical Seminary (now Portland Seminary), from which he earned a Master of Divinity degree in 2010, Sand helped the university establish the Act Six leadership and scholarship initiative, which identifies and supports diverse cohorts of future urban leaders.

“I was just a naïve 24-year-old,” Sand recalls, laughing. Through friends, he knew university president Robin Baker was interested in partnering with the Act Six program in Tacoma, Washington. “I basically showed up and was like, ‘Don’t! We’ll find you students here!’”

In a move that baffles Sand to this day, Baker agreed to let him launch and run Portland’s iteration of the program. As of this year, Portland’s Act Six program has brought 100 students to George Fox on full-need scholarships and supported them through their academic and professional development.

The experience quickly proved Sand to be an excellent community organizer, and in 2008 he took that calling to the next level by launching the Portland Leadership Foundation, which is an umbrella nonprofit that incubates ministries serving local children and families. The foundation took over the management of Act Six and grew other initiatives to develop multicultural leaders, including scholarships for teens transitioning out of foster care and a summer academy for student-athletes.

In recent years, the foundation has also placed emphasis on partnering with local government to more effectively address today’s problems – all while still investing in the leadership of tomorrow.

The key example of this partnership is Embrace Oregon, an initiative that comes alongside the Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) to support children and families involved in the foster care system. The initiative began with an idea to create welcome boxes for kids who are pulled out of their homes and brought to a DHS office. These children often wait hours, if not overnight, while a staffer searches to find housing for them, so the boxes include entertaining toys as well as a few basics, such as a toothbrush and flashlight.

“Embrace has been the first organization to really understand and want to take care of the caregivers,” says Norene Owens, program manager at the North Clackamas Child Welfare Office. Volunteers have come by her office to clean toys or drop off lunch for the staff, and she remembers receiving a roll of Life Savers candy with a simple note: “Thanks for being a life-saver.”

Embrace has provided makeovers for the visitation rooms at several DHS locations, transitioning those key spaces from sterile and outdated to warm and welcoming. The initiative also recruits volunteers to keep kids company at the DHS office, and enlists families to fill more substantial needs, such as fostering a child or committing to support a family long-term.

“To me, it has been nothing short of revolutionary for DHS,” Owens says.

Other faith-based groups have tried to get involved in the past, she says, but never in a sustainable way. Sand’s energy and vision has filled Owens with hope, and she isn’t alone. This year, the foundation signed an agreement with DHS to expand the work of Embrace Oregon to every county by 2022.

“He has a bright intellect and that energy and organizational ability. He can motivate change to happen,” Owens says. “This is the best hope we’ve had of breaking the cycles.”

In 2014, Sand’s involvement with DHS became deeply personal. After months of prayer, he and his wife, Maile – already parents of two girls – decided to foster then-3-month-old Julin, who ultimately became an adopted member of their family.

“Being a foster parent is incredibly hard,” Sand says. “It requires people who say, ‘I am willing to do hard things with this child even though it will bring pain and confusion and heartache to me and my family.’”

Sand’s tireless work through the foundation and at home trace back to his own childhood experiences. One of six siblings raised by a struggling single mother, Sand grew up with the weight of his future on his shoulders. He worked multiple jobs throughout high school and college to provide for himself, and was lucky to have key relationships with mentors who made a huge difference in his life.

“Because of his background, he knows it’s possible for people to come from challenged situations and not just survive, but thrive in every way – even be a game changer in a city,” says friend Kevin Palau, president of the Luis Palau Association and a key player in the growing partnership between the Portland faith community and local government. “His own experience has equipped him to look people in the eye and say, ‘You can’t tell me it’s not possible.’”

Sand believes a lot is possible. While so many people look at the world and are overcome with pessimism, he describes great hope – hope that’s largely rooted in the atonement theology he discovered during his time at George Fox.

“The basic premise is, ‘Listen y’all, Jesus died, descended into hell, put the smack-down on the devil, and defeated death and defeated evil,’” Sand explains. “We are given a gift of the same spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. If that doesn’t produce a sense of optimism and swagger, I don’t know what will.”

And it’s that swagger, he says, that gets him out of bed in the morning.

“Each day I have an opportunity to shine light into the world and work from a place of victory,” he says. “I get to do good with a conquering spirit.”