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Portland Japanese Garden buys historic building from Salvation Army to create education center

White Shield was once a birthing center for unwed mothers, but it will soon be home to the Japan Institute, a project of Portland Japanese Garden.

PORTLAND, Ore. — What was once a haven for single pregnant women is the newest addition to the Portland Japanese Garden and its ongoing project, The Japan Institute

The Salvation Army just sold the Portland property, which is nestled in the West Hills off Alexandra Avenue.

“At the end of the day, this is a safe place for young girls who are in need of help,” said Shawn Higley.

Higley was born on the property in 1963. At the time, his mother was 17 years old.

“She didn’t know what to do,” he said. “She took a Greyhound bus to Portland, to White Shield, and she stayed here for weeks.” 

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The White Shield Center was the name of the property, a respite for many women like Higley’s mother who had no where else to turn.

“They maybe want to be a mom, but they’re not equipped to be a mom,” said Higley.

After Higley was born at White Shield, he was put up for adoption. When he was older, he began a search for his mother that lasted years. One day he finally found her.

“It was interesting,” Higley said. “It was kind of an out-of-body experience, but I got to say thank you and learned all about my birth father, who I’ve never met.”

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“There was a lot of stigma against women who were pregnant out of wedlock who had children without a father present,” said Major Bob Lloyd, who works with the Salvation Army.  

Lloyd knows that for many women, this was the last place they saw their children. He showed KGW the room where women would say goodbye to their babies before they were taken out the door for adoption.  

“There are so many miracles that happen on this property,” said Cynthia Miguel, who once worked at the property and gave 24/7 care to pregnant teens and women recovering from trauma.  

“It was powerful, it was exhausting, it was hard — I got cursed out a lot, but it was beautiful, it was beautiful work,” she said.  

That work ended just two years ago when the program closed because of financial issues.

“It was profoundly sad and tragic and heartbreaking,” said Miguel.  

After careful analysis, The Salvation Army has decided to close the White Shield Center, effective July 10, 2020,...

Posted by White Shield Center on Friday, July 10, 2020

The Salvation Army then sold the property to The Japan Institute. 

“The girls were devastated, it made a really painful situation ...but the fact that the Japan Institute [is taking over] makes it totally better,” said Miguel. 

Some of the proceeds are now going toward local shelters for women and children.  

Will Lerner, who works for the Japanese Garden said, "We see it as, we are now the next stewards of this building.”

The planned addition will offer more educational opportunities for artists in the area.

“There’s just so many stories here, so many lives have been impacted, that it feels a little sad to give it away,” said Major Lloyd. “I also know that the Portland Japanese Garden will have some incredible future stories.” 

The Japan Institute hopes to complete renovations and open the campus by the end of 2024.