Longtime inventor has plans to help destitute in Sweet Home

Scott Swanson

Alvin Kimble has faith – that if God wants him to fulfill Kimble’s goals to help local individuals who are down and out, it will happen.

If that perspective seems unusual, Kimble acknowledges that his life experience has been pretty unusual.

He’s now 69 and he’s lived in Sweet Home for the last few years. Despite being subject to seizures, he’s managed to build a house for himself and his wife Shirley, and he’s found himself doing something he’d done for many years in Portland: helping homeless people get on their feet.

“I think outside the box,” he said. “That’s what I’ve always done.”

Kimble grew up on the edge of the Muckleshoot Indian Reservation on the Washington coast in a family that was “real poor” but frequently shared their resources with neighbors, he said.

“We would go to the fruit stand and get the leftovers,” he said. “We’d take the good stuff and can it and feed the rest to our animals. We had a deal with the Indians to supply food to them.”

Occasionally, they’d house people in need.

That gave him an education in poverty, he said. “I grew up in that mentality. It’s deeply ingrained in me.”

After dropping out of high school because of a “mistake,” he earned his GED and started an engineering company, Forest Machinery Design, in the Olympia, Wash. area that focused on automation, though he never got an engineering degree or was licensed in the field.

“I had four partners who were licensed engineers,” he said. “I can out-think most engineers. I was the one who thought outside the box. I have numerous patents to my name. I built a lot of automated machinery.”

He got his first patent at 25 and added at least eight more over the years, ranging from clamping systems to a shock-absorbing motor mount.

“What I did was come up with ideas in industry,” he said. “I had a lot of friends in industry.”

That first patent, he said, was for a machine about 80 feet long with “lots of stations” that would automatically paint and sand house doors.

Kimble said he spent a lot of time in the early years building small sawmills and firewood processors.

Another of his creations was a radar-resistant finish that could be applied to wood products.

“I was the only one in the U.S. to do that,” he said, noting that “somebody back East eventually copied my design. That’s life.”

He said the real reason why he went into business, though, was to provide jobs for young people – up to 30 or 40 at a time.

“I’ve always had a passion for kids,” he said. “I produced products so they could learn skills like welding and metal fabrication.”

Though not all of them went on to success, he said, some did.

“It was a low percentage, but some did. It was very good for them.”

After some internal problems caused his company to close down, Kimball moved to Portland, where he worked with another company and doing free-lance design work.

Meanwhile, he got involved in Living Hope International, a non-profit ministry that feeds the homeless every Sunday morning in O’Bryant Square in Portland.

That’s where his involvement with the homeless, prostitutes and drug addicts began.

“I fell in love with the people in downtown Portland,” he said. “On Sunday mornings, sometimes there’d be a line of people waiting to talk to you. When you feed 200 or 300 people every Sunday, a lot of them want to talk to you. A lot of them wanted prayer.”

Over some 15 years he learned how to counsel the down and out individuals, developing relationships that have continued to the present, he said. He also developed a philosophy of how to best help those whom he describes as having no hope – a process that involves gaining trust, building relationships, learning life skills such as managing money, formal education and, ultimately, employment.

“It takes a long time to first get trust,” Kimble said. “I didn’t start making progress down there for a couple of years.”

But when people started making progress under his guidance, word got around, he said.

One of the first steps, he said, was getting people to volunteer to help keep their downtown block clean.

“You have to build their self-esteem,” he said. “My people had to take responsibility for their area. They need to start learning how to start feeling good about themselves. In our little meetings we just built on that.”

“I can only tell you that there are lots of girls I have helped out of prostitution, just by sitting with them. A lot of addicts who have quit.”

He used his business to provide education for a number of individuals, he said. It wasn’t a quick process, but he’s had “near-100 percent success if they followed my rules” and a number of individuals remain drug-free, with jobs, he said.

“You have to progress from trust to commitment. Once they trust me, then I have to get them to the point where they will make a commitment.” Once that stage was reached, he said, he could help people get education and jobs.

Although he is a Christian, he said, his initial emphasis isn’t seeing people converted.

“I have to find their itch,” Kimble said. “I don’t push God first. I meet their need first. When they’re ready, they’ll ask me about God.”

Following some business reverses and suffering from some health problems, Kimble and his wife moved to Sweet Home three years ago.

“We came here because I was tired,” he said. “I was quite sick. They didn’t give me 30 days to live when I left the hospital. I’ve been here three years.”

He didn’t intend to get involved with the homeless in Sweet Home, but “it just kind of happened.”

Homelessness in Sweet Home, he says, is different than in Portland. He said many local people who are homeless or on drugs live in fear of “blackmail and abuse” and many have warrants, which complicates things.

He’s tried to mentor three or four people, “none regularly right now,” while he’s been focusing on finishing his house. Then he has big plans.

The clock is ticking, he says. Suffering from a number of physical problems, he’s been fitted for a motorized wheelchair and knows he will be forced to use it soon.

But he still has a product line in mind that he expects to give him resources to help the hopeless, particularly by providing jobs for as many as 30 to 40 people, he said.

“I’m not asking other people for money,” he said. “This has to pay for itself. They will all be people who need another lift in life.”

Kimble said he believes his ideas work and he’s willing to talk with people, particularly “families of people who have slipped into drugs.”

“My dream for these people is different” than other suggested solutions which, he said, don’t address the real problems behind homelessness, drug abuse and prostitution.

“I can’t agree with something that says, ‘We don’t care what the burden on the city is.’ I don’t disagree with what they’re doing, but I can’t justify how they’re doing it.

“Education and good job training are key to getting them long-term self-esteem, being able to care for themselves. They never learned it at home. Almost 100 percent of the people in downtown Portland never got training.”

Working with the homeless is “tough,” he said.

“I just exhausts you. Their needs are so great. I’ve got some here who are in and out, in and out. All I can do is just keep loving them.

“People think that these addicts are hopeless. And sometimes you have to kiss a frog.

“I just have a passion. I’d love to have more.”