Ramadan: A spiritual journey of purification & compassion

Editor’s note: As we approached Ramadan this year, I realized that I was woefully ignorant of how Muslims celebrate this important holiday and why. I reached out to see if someone from the Solid Ground team would write about their experience of Ramadan. Abdel Elfahmy volunteered! Abdel, a practicing Muslim, is an Operations Supervisor at Solid Ground Transportation. I am grateful to him for sharing his perspective. 

Ramadan MubarakWhy are they fasting?

Whenever the month of Ramadan begins and the sighting of its crescent is affirmed, this marks the celebration of the willpower and strong determination of every Muslim. (This year’s Ramadan began the evening of June 17 and is over the evening of July 17.) Muslims fast from sun rise to sun set throughout the month of Ramadan out of obedience to their Lord and their urge to benefit from such a great spiritual experience. Muslims embark on a month-long spiritual journey of purification, hoping to disclose the wisdom behind fasting and obtain the abundant rewards of this blessed month, the fasting of which is one of the pillars of Islam.

The following are some of the rationales for fasting in this month:

1) The month of Ramadan is a practical self-training process on the sincerity and honesty of the believer: The one who breaks the fast is breaching the pledge with Allah, therefore fasting improves and increases his sense of honesty when he refrains from anything that could break his fast even whilst in seclusion. Of course one is not forced to fast in the month of Ramadan (there is no authority to check man’s behavior or compel him to observe fasting). One may pretend to be fasting in front of people, if his heart does not have any fear of his Lord. Fasting is an act of worship that is offered to the Creator with full devotion and sincerity, hoping only for the rewards from him.

2) Strengthening one’s willpower and determination: One who can tolerate the pain of hunger and thirst, and controls himself from having a sexual relation with his/her spouse whilst fasting, will strengthen determination and willpower. This frees the person from being enslaved to lusts and desires that are harmful. The month of Ramadan grounds a person in self-control. It is the month of radical positive change. When one fasts, one is in control of themself and exercises full control over habits and desires. Some people lose their temper and become ill-mannered if their meal was delayed from its normal time or if they do not drink their morning coffee or afternoon tea. They have become so accustomed to a certain routine that changing it creates a problem for them. Such people are slaves to their routine and habits, and fasting helps the person overcome this behavior.

3) Fasting is a holistic spiritual experience that poses a huge question mark for those who grasp the wisdom behind this obligation: A fasting person should ponder on the spirit of caring and sharing which fasting develops in Muslims. All fasting Muslims share the same pain, hunger, thirst and bitterness of deprivation while fasting with the poor and needy. Ramadan creates a social and humanitarian context that fosters compassion for the needy around the world. By our voluntary hunger and thirst, we realize what it means to be deprived of basic necessities of life. Ramadan is a time to remember and help those who are less fortunate. Moreover, all Muslims also feel the joy of breaking their fast and relish thankfulness to God. The poor people rejoice at their wealthy brothers who are sharing their pain and suffering with them. They rejoice at the thought that their wealthy brothers help them to ward off the scourge of hunger and bitter deprivation. Fasting rejuvenates the concept of social solidarity among the community.

4) Fasting generates in humans feelings of happiness, peace of mind and spiritual satisfaction, and fosters the unity of the community: It inculcates the real spirit of social belonging, of unity and brotherhood. When one fasts, one feels that he/she is joining the whole Muslim society in observing the same duty in the same manner at the same time for the same motives and to the same end.

5) Fasting is one of the greatest means to obtain forgiveness for sins and removal of misdeeds.

6) Realizing the size of the bounties of God: Fasting makes rich people appreciate the favors of Allah, because Allah has granted what He has deprived many other people from. Refraining from such bounties and blessings for a short period through fasting reminds the rich of those who are continuously deprived, and they thus become grateful to Allah and more merciful towards the needy.

7) Fasting has clear health and psychological benefits: These were disclosed after scientific discoveries were made, and from the insights of those who were blessed with insight and good understanding of the divine obligation. Some of these benefits are:

  • It organizes the person’s heartbeat and relaxes it, since no blood is needed for digestion.
  • It purifies the blood from fat and cholesterol and acids.
  • It relieves the liver from the regular pressure.
  • It reduces the production of the digestive glands, which is usually the cause for ulcers.
  • It protects the person from weight gain, diabetes and kidney stones.
  • It reduces the pressure on the heart arteries.

A fasting person spends his days in carrying out one of the greatest acts, devoting his days and nights during that holy month in remembrance, glorification and worship of Allah, and willfully rejecting all temptations, abominations and the cravings of the human body.

Skool Haze: Part 2

Image by twobee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image by twobee at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Just how does a white teacher communicate identity and belonging to a black child or teen? Is their legitimate concern enough? Are a set of classroom guidelines and good intent enough to fill in the chasm of “who am I in relation to what you are?” Is the fact that they’re there enough? If a child doesn’t understand the power and pain of their skin color, how will a white teacher assist with this? How can a white teacher provide a young black male with the tools to survive when that teacher has no concept of the child’s reality and/or destiny?

See where I’m going with these questions? White people can’t teach identity to black people regardless of what their intent is. Nope, can’t be done. So it isn’t a question of is harm being done to our kids, it’s more a question of how do we mitigate the damage? What do those white eyes see when they look at our black children? Are they peering across the great divide of privilege and looking at blacks like they think they will never amount to anything?

I can say from the truth of my own life that white teachers give up on black kids, and they do it routinely. Sometimes it’s because they are unable to recognize intellect in any other population other than their own, and sometimes it’s because they can’t comprehend the import of being entrusted with black children. They look at their students and quietly categorize them and then funnel them to whatever they believe their potential to be. Simply because one chooses to teach or feels they have the aptitude doesn’t mean they have the skill to work with populations other than their own.

Mr. Hagen was a good white teacher, for good white kids. But for his black students, he was sorely lacking in empathy and understanding. These traits can only be cultivated in a teacher who is intellectually curious and courageous enough to step outside of their whiteness to see the true challenges of all of their students. It’s clear there will never be enough black teachers, but there is no end to bad white teachers. This is a sad and inexcusable deficit, and the response to this should be in keeping with the need. The fact is white teachers have a hard time understanding their kids of color, and this is a lack of knowledge and experience we can’t afford. These teachers should be exposed to as many aspects of the student’s life as possible.

I’ve met many people who were well-meaning, but who were singularly unqualified to do the jobs that were gifted to them through privilege. Teachers, social workers, doctors, lawyers and politicians – all horrendously bad at their jobs but are well protected by their skin color – ensconced in a strata of unearned benefits. This is the sad mirage of social good: People get so caught up in helping, they forget that working with these populations takes training and the willingness to be introspective. To teach and to help, one must be absolutely ready to learn.

Immersing young black kids in a white cultural experience they will never have full access to is an unavoidable and abusive act. It sets these kids up to think they will never be good enough because they aren’t white. America’s prisons are filled with men who thought that they weren’t good enough either. They were systematically taught to live up to no expectations.

But in the end, you know what scares me more than white teachers? White social workers who work in tandem with them and who collectively think that the key to balancing a social ill is a program or a guilt-laden vocabulary that will have no effect on anyone who doesn’t innately care anyway. The unconscious analyses of whites scare me, because privilege is so easy to forget if it’s the sea you swim in.

There’s nothing more dangerous than people who think they know what they’re doing simply because they care.

Skool Haze: Part 1

Image courtesy of africa at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of africa at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

White teachers scare the hell out of me – or did anyway. Several made life difficult for me, and some did thinking they were doing genuinely good work. Mr. Hagen was my 6th grade teacher, and he was one of those people. He was a tall man with a booming loud voice and a disarming laugh. When he was in the room you knew it. He was always joking with students and having fun creatively teaching them how to learn lessons. He was all energy. I really liked him. But the day he put his hands on me, all that changed.

I can’t remember what triggered the incident. Was I talking too loud, or was I talking during a movie, or was I just horsing around with a classmate? I don’t know, because all I can remember are two emotions: his rage and my naked terror of it. He was screaming at the top of his lungs about what I was doing wrong like I couldn’t change it. He pulled me into the hall like a bag of trash bound for a dumpster, and I could feel the anger in his hands as he slammed me against the wall. I was pinned, berated and made to feel worthless. These are feelings that linger and take years to figure out.

What does it mean to have an adult that’s “trusted” render life-altering judgments and lay hands on you? But in that moment he didn’t see that he was white and I was a scared black kid; it missed his notice that a terrible event was being burned into a young brain. I was being taught not to trust people that looked like him. And to fear not just whites but institutions as well, even ones like public education, which supposedly work for the greater good of everyone.

I don’t know what was in Mr. Hagen’s heart, but the net effect of terrorizing a child was debilitation. I stopped wanting to learn. The trip to school from that day forward was long, and I didn’t live far from my school. My time in class was uncomfortable and boring as I tuned out my teachers’ voices. I drifted farther from my potential and closer to statistics that lead too many young black men to early graves. I became destructive and was frequently in trouble with the law. Eventually I saw no pathway for me in school – and definitely none to college – so I dropped out and tuned out.

Why would we expect black children to learn under conditions like that? Why would it be acceptable to us to condemn even one to the feeling of not belonging? Is our desire for social justice so all-consuming it fails to see the obvious or create any semblance of the world it imagines? Children are supposed to be protected, and I wasn’t protected. As a society, we should be going to extraordinary lengths to protect our black children if we suspect they are being harmed, even if the harm is inadvertent.

Back on the road to home

Bruce Perry with his truck

Bruce Perry with his truck

Truck driver Bruce Perry is a veteran and a resident at Santos Place on Solid Ground’s Sand Point Housing campus. He has lived in many different places – from the deep south, to California, to the Pacific Northwest – and he has worn many different career hats. From a young age, he has known exactly what he wanted to do with his life – several different things, to be exact – and one by one, he has achieved those goals.

Bruce says, “I’ve done pretty much all I wanted to do in life, career-wise. I knew when I was 10 years old that I wanted to go into the military. I’d see the convoys of military trucks and “I’d say, ‘Mom, that’s going to be me one day!’ ” And sure enough, he served in the US Army from 1975 to 1979, a Vietnam-era vet who was fortunate to enlist three months before the end of the active conflict, so he never saw combat. Also, he says, “I wanted to be a mailman – which I did for 19½ years – and at the age of 42, I retired, in the Bay Area.”

Finally, he says, “I wanted to be a truck driver.” He first got his Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) in 2005 and worked as a cross-country freight driver for several years. “I’ve been to 48 states, Mexico and Canada.” This last goal, though, had a serious hiccup: In 2009 in Louisiana, he received a ticket, which he paid with a check that didn’t go through. Unfortunately, the check was returned to an old address and he never received it, causing his license to be suspended for a year. “And each time you get a ticket,” he explains, “it’s another violation that counts for one year. Another violation, another year. So that’s how I had to do three years on suspension. That’s three years without driving at all.”

Starting over

In 2011, with his final dream job on hiatus, his funds dwindling, and very few veterans resources available to him in the south, he decided to relocate to Washington state where he could get housing through the Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH). “That’s one reason I moved here; and another reason was I’d be close to my girlfriend,” he says with a shy smile. (She lives in Vancouver, BC, and thanks to Amtrak he gets to meet her in Bellingham a few times a month.)

After a stint in VASH temporary housing, Bruce was placed in transitional housing at Santos Place. A self-described loner and very independent man, he says, “This place is for people able to take care of themselves, ‘cause nobody gonna come knock on their door and say, ‘Hey, are you ok?’ You have to be able to take care of yourself here.”

During his stay, he says, “I kept myself busy.” So while living at Santos and waiting out his suspension, he worked at Whole Foods Market and received job training through AARP – and just as soon as his suspension was up, he went straight back and got recertified as a truck driver. In June 2014, he was back on the road, and he couldn’t be happier. He drives up and down the coast, from Kent, WA to southern California and back, with weekends at home. And come December 1st, five days before his birthday, Bruce will finally move out of Santos Place and into permanent housing.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Bruce outside of Santos Place

Bruce outside of Santos Place

To others struggling to get back on their feet, he urges people to “ask for help. Solid Ground has people to help you with that! Depression, shame stops people from doing what they need to do. It’s scary. You get in this environment, it’s all you know. You stay here and you feel comfortable, and it’s hard to get up and walk out that door and go out there and get a job again, because a lot of people are scared of failure. But you got to start somewhere.”

He recommends that people “Go to training school while you’re on low income. Go to WorkSource. Go to the library. We got two brand new computers here and a whole computer room. Take advantage of that! Go to junior college. It’s up to you to decide what you want to do.”

Home for the holidays

This year, Bruce will be in his own home for Christmas for the first time in a long time. A devout Christian, he believes God played an important role in his success: “If you open your heart up to God, read your bible, pray – put your trust in God, not man – then it will start working. If you have the right attitude, things will work out for you. It may take a while, but it will happen.”

And while Bruce is technically of retirement age, he’s not at all retiring. “The only thing I want to do now is just continue working and, God willing, work to the age of 66 and collect my social security. I got a chance to retire; I know what it’s like to retire. I got a chance to be blessed to start back over again. So it’s like a big burden lifted off of your shoulders.” But, he says, when he finally does “retire” from truck driving, he still intends to drive a truck two or three days a week. “I’ve talked to older people,” he says, “and lots of people have told me, the worst thing you can do is just sit around all day and do nothing. Once you sit down and start doing nothing, your muscles and your mind, everything’s all fading away. You lose everything.”

And he has absolutely no regrets. “It’s hard to explain to people; very few people can look back and say they’ve done everything they wanted to do in life. I’m one of those few people. And how do you know that you’ve done everything in life? If the doctor said, ‘You only have two months to live?’ I’ve done everything I wanted to do!”

Driving from the heart

Ninus and Kathy Hopkins represent everything that is good about Solid Ground. Our longest-tenured Access bus operators, they are a mixed-race couple who have endured a lifetime of prejudice and racism, yet what shines through in their work is the clearest manifestation of building community that you will ever see.

Kathy Hopkins, circa 1989

Kathy Hopkins, circa 1989

When Ninus and Kathy started, Seattle Personal Transit was a small paratransit service launched by one-time Jesuit Volunteer John Rochford, who pioneered special transportation services for people living with disabilities who can’t access the fixed-route system.

In 1987, the program combined two small independent services in North Seattle. Renamed Solid Ground Transportation in 2013, it is the only nonprofit service provider of Metro Access Transportation.

Last year, Solid Ground’s Access buses provided over 330,000 rides to link people to essential resources, enabling them to continue to live independently. Even more than rides, Solid Ground’s transportation provides connection and compassion for its customers.

 

1 Year Later: Remembering my mom & a call for action

guest columnThis post was contributed by Solid Ground Board Member Lauren McGowan and was originally published on July 15, 2014 on her personal blog, Now is the Time: Ending hunger, homelessness, and the cycle of poverty…in heels. Lauren has served on the Solid Ground Board since 2006, including four years as Board President. This piece is a followup to When homelessness hits home/Love you, Love you more, which she wrote when her mother passed away a year ago.

LaurenMcG-MomPlaqueIt’s been exactly one year since I received the worst possible phone call. My mom Fran, who struggled with homelessness for many years, died on the beach in my hometown of West Haven, Connecticut. For much of my childhood my mom was like any other mom – she struggled to balance work, family, and bills. She proudly volunteered for field trips, hosted sleepovers, and beamed with pride at dance recitals and strikeouts. She carried a deep love for my dad, her high school sweetheart, with her day in and day out.

And then something happened.

A combination of stress, anxiety, depression, chronic substance abuse and mental illness led her world to crumble. Instead of enjoying the wisdom and balance that comes with middle age – she spent her 40s and early 50s battling demons, bouncing between hotels, rehab facilities, shelters, transitional units, couches, apartments and – more often than my heart can admit – the streets. Her favorite resting spot was behind the church where I made my confirmation – she thought god would keep her safe.

100ILoveYousI’m not a religious person but my mom was. She believed the church would save her when nothing else could. Since she passed I’ve said the “Our Father” every time I see a pink sunset. I like to think she’s watching over us. Since July 15, 2013, there have been more than 100 sunsets, 100 reflections, 100 “Our Fathers,” 100 I Love Yous.

When I first shared her story, I could count on one hand the number of people who knew about her struggle. Homelessness is deeply shameful, embarrassing, and isolating – both for the individual and the family. I carefully protected that secret because talking about it – naming it – made it real. It meant talking out loud about the things I wrestled with…

Do I move her to Seattle where there are more resources for people who struggle with homelessness?”

“Should she move in with me?”

“Should I buy her a place in CT?”

“Isn’t there one more social service agency I can call, one more wait-list to be on?”

“Why can’t I fix this?”

Sharing her story was a leap of faith – a quest for a better outcome for other moms. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by the best possible friends and family, and what I’ve learned over the last year is that there are many people in my circle who’ve carried their own secret black cloud. The stigma of depression, substance abuse and mental illness keeps too many people quiet. The shame and blame of poverty, job loss and homelessness too often rips families apart.

But it shouldn’t be this way. No one should die on our streets alone. No one should struggle alone. No one should go from provider to provider, hospital to hospital, treatment center to treatment center, and walk away empty handed or land on a wait-list miles long. Despite years of interventions, tens-of-thousands of dollars and a lot of system knowledge, I couldn’t fix my mother’s situation. And for too many friends who’ve lost siblings, parents or partners, they couldn’t fix it either. No, we can’t fix it alone, but together I believe we can.

Significant policy reform at a national level is needed to create a more robust, effective, and compassionate safety net. To get there, we must engage and mobilize people experiencing homelessness, business leaders and caring neighbors like we’ve never done before.

Everyone deserves to have a safe and decent place to call home. When people fall – and it can happen to anyone – they need holistic resources that will help get them back on their feet. When moms need treatment for mental illness or substance abuse, level of need – not financial resources – should drive treatment options. We need to break our silence.

I look forward to the day when the voices of people who have struggled with homelessness and mental illness are as strong as the NRA lobbyists, because that is what it will take. Yes, it takes resources. So does ignoring the problem. So does funding a war. For the 600,000 Americans who struggle with homelessness – many due to mental illness – every day is a struggle, every day is a war.

Homelessness is solvable. Big foundations and local governments – even the Veterans Administration – are providing that it can be done. So let’s take it to scale and make sure no man, woman or child goes without a roof. As taxpayers, voters and engaged citizens, we make choices every day. Today we must choose to stop being silent and help move the most vulnerable in our community to Solid Ground.

In Memory: Sandi Cutler

“Sandi Cutler -- a graceful leader whose vision and compassion drove lasting social change.”

“Sandi Cutler — a graceful leader whose vision and compassion drove lasting social change.”

Sandi Cutler, Solid Ground’s Chief Operating & Strategy Officer, died unexpectedly during the first week of July from natural causes. He leaves behind many loving family members, dozens of grieving colleagues and a lifelong legacy of social justice work. While not a publicly recognized figure, Sandi made significant contributions to the political life of our region, our nation’s health care system, and the stability and success of Solid Ground.

Sandi grew up in the Central Valley of California. His father was a school district administrator who worked to desegregate the public schools that employed him – which meant that he was often fired. So the family moved on, taking their active commitment to social justice to another community.

As a young man, Sandi was an effective political organizer. He was a major force in moving San José, California to change from at-large elections to City Council districts, which helped communities of color gain representation. He worked tirelessly to raise funds for candidates of color to ensure they maintained their political power.

Later in his career, Sandi became a nationally known leader in natural medicine and the public policy issues related to the integration of natural health sciences into health care. A brilliant strategic thinker and deeply knowledgeable planner, he helped turn Bastyr College into Bastyr University, one of the world’s preeminent natural health sciences institutions. He also guided the expansion of DeVry University’s medical school, turning it into the largest provider of new physicians into the U.S. Health Care system.

When Sandi came to Solid Ground in 2012, he brought more experience in developing and implementing strategies, operations management, organizational development and leadership than most people could gain in many lifetimes.

And still, he was at heart a gifted community organizer who believed that it was a successful day only if he had helped make the world a better place.

Gordon McHenry, Jr. with Sandi Cutler at Solid Ground's 2014 Stand Against Racism event

Gordon McHenry, Jr. with Sandi Cutler at Solid Ground’s 2014 Stand Against Racism event

“Sandi took great pride in his Italian heritage and a culture of living life to the fullest, characterized by love of family and community,” said Gordon McHenry, Jr., President & CEO of Solid Ground. “He was always mindful of his white privilege and careful in his role in Solid Ground’s hierarchy.

“The opportunity to be employed with Solid Ground was both inspirational and motivating for Sandi. He felt honored to continue working on behalf of those suffering from oppression and poverty, as well as from the impacts of societal barriers to justice, equity and the opportunity to thrive.”

“Sandi will be remembered as a graceful leader whose vision and compassion drove lasting social change,” said Lauren McGowan, past President of Solid Ground’s Board of Directors.

“Sandi’s kind nature and compassion had an impact on everyone around him,” said Kira Zylstra, Stabilization Services Director. “He had a profound and genuine care for the community that we serve as well as the team of dedicated staff here at Solid Ground.”

Solid Ground extends its deepest support to Sandi’s family and friends. We know that for all the loss we feel, yours is deeper and even more profound.

And as we reflect on the incomprehensible fragility of life, we are reminded to be kind to one another, to find the beauty in each day and to make sure we express our love to those we cherish.

A public memorial service will be held Sunday, July 27 from 1–4pm at Bastyr University Chapel (14500 Juanita Drive NE, Kenmore).

Throwback Thursday: Emerson celebrates a year of successful composting!

This post by Apple Corps member Lisa Woo originally appeared on the Apple Corps blog.

As our AmeriCorps terms come to an end (July 15th is the last day for a handful of our team members), it is hard not to get sentimental about the past year of service. This end of term is especially nostalgic for me as I complete a two-year chapter with the Apple Corps program. So, in honor of the amazing community I have had the chance to work with and all that they have taught me, here’s a little Throwback Thursday!

All year long, students at Emerson Elementary, the site school where I have taught nutrition education, have been exploring their role as Earth Stewards through a school-wide lunchroom composting initiative co-led by myself and our fellow Apple Corps Member, Randa, who served as the Active Play Coordinator. Together, we developed a student-led “Compost Hero” lunchroom monitor program that was able to engage every student at each grade level. In addition, we held several health promotions throughout the year that allowed students to understand the close connection between environmental and personal health!

Students at Emerson embraced the title of "Compost Hero" with their fearless leader, Ms. Randa, a fellow Apple Corps Member (pictured top center)

Students at Emerson embraced the title of “Compost Hero” with their fearless leader, Ms. Randa, a fellow Apple Corps Member (pictured top center)

One such promotion was our Earth Day: Caught Green Handed Celebration, which challenged students to do good deeds for the earth and identify the ripple effects those acts have on their community. Students enjoyed posing in our “Caught” picture frame and having their photos displayed proudly throughout the school hallways.

gardening

Students turning compost into our school garden beds

The year ended strong with a final school-wide competition that pitted primary grade levels (Kindergarten, First and Second) against the intermediate grade levels (Third, Fourth and Fifth) in a Food Waste Challenge similar to the promotion held at Concord Elementary. The challenge was a great way to wrap up a year of compost education and stimulated great conversation among students about how important reducing food waste is for both our bodies and our earth, despite having a fantastic alternative waste deposit system. Paired with quality time in the garden and hands-on worm explorations, our final week of composting was nothing short of fantastic!

garden picture

A group of students deeply engrossed in their worm exploration!

Great job, Emerson Eagles!

Solstice Parade founder on building community through art

2013 Fremont Solstice Parade biker (Flickr photo by Lambert Rellosa)

2013 Fremont Solstice Parade biker (Flickr photo by Lambert Rellosa)

Long before the Fremont Solstice Parade was world-renown for the phalanx of naked bicyclists that kick it off, the event was created as a way to build community through creative expression.

The parade was birthed by Barbara Luecke and Peter Toms, migrant arts-workers who brought the concept of a Solstice Parade with them when they came to Seattle from Santa Barbara in the late 1980s. Solid Ground and its forebear, the Fremont Public Association (FPA), helped birth the parade by providing institutional support to the Fremont Arts Council. The parade was more or less grafted onto the Fremont Fair, which was produced by Solid Ground from 1974-2009. The Fremont Chamber of Commerce assumed control of the Fair in 2010.

Barbara Luecke, co-founder, Fremont Solstice Parade

Barbara Luecke, co-founder, Fremont Solstice Parade

The Fremont Parade was conceived with two fairly conservative restrictions that seemingly paradoxically fostered its spirit of pure unabashed creation: There were to be no printed words (or logos) and no motor vehicles (except aid chairs). This limited commercialization and freed participants to come together in a celebration of life and art.

Fremont Solstice Parade (photo by Eric Frommer)

Fremont Solstice Parade (photo by Eric Frommer)

Annual public workshops are at the heart of the parade, bringing artists and other participants together to create and collaborate on costumes and ensembles in an art lab environment. The parade and workshops are managed by the Fremont Arts Council.

In this brief video, Barbara Luecke tells the story of the genesis of the Parade and role that Solid Ground/FPA played in building community through the arts.

 

Hamm Creek Restoration: Would you believe this is Seattle?

The rushing waters of Hamm Creek

The rushing waters of Hamm Creek

Harmony. Lots can come to mind when you really think about it. But I’m talking environmental harmony. I visited, photographed, chatted at and volunteered on the Marra Farm Giving Garden for the first time a couple weeks ago. It was one of those rare Seattle spring days where the sun lingers all day and the temperature is just right. While I poked around the farm (before getting down and dirty planting tomatoes), I kept the idea of Hamm Creek in the back of my mind.

About three days before my visit, I talked to Nate Moxley, Lettuce Link Program Manager at Solid Ground, about where I might find the creek once I arrived at the farm. He explained to me exactly where I could find it. I mean, the exact placement of the creek from any standing position, whether you’re facing north, south, east or west; are 300 feet from 4th Avenue South; next to the tallest scarecrow, etc. Let me tell you: I still missed it. After slowly exploring the farm, I finally circled back to where I’d started.

Kyong Soh, Lettuce Link’s Marra Farm Coordinator, was actively running around, filling new compost bins here and checking on tomato plants there. I asked her where I might find Hamm Creek.

“Oh, it’s right behind you!” she said. I did a mental face palm. How could I miss it? Was it that obvious? But when I turned around, I didn’t feel so dumb: No, in fact, it is not visible at all. Many people could be and are presently oblivious to this creek. Although it runs above ground (or has been “daylighted”) for about 200 feet right next to the popular neighborhood farm, it is shrouded by large bushes, smallish trees and tall grasses.

First, Kyong led me about 15 feet to the left of the main entrance, where we crouched down beneath shrubbery in order to avoid nettles in our faces and any exposed skin. This small clearing afforded us a view of darkened, lightly rushing water. The second entryway was a little more open, but still unassuming from the outside and didn’t provide much light for observing the critters and plant life contained within. The third entrance to the creek was by far my favorite: The short walk down requires little squatting or cautionary walking. A little sun peeked in through the overgrown greenery and a modest tree arched its thin branches over the stream, protecting it from daylight.

Best of all, we witnessed this tranquil setting at its finest, part of why the creek was daylighted in the first place: A man, no older than 25, sat by the creek with his bike perched next to him, relaxing and snacking in the shade, apparently taking a break from the day and choosing to do so in this serene environment – a sliver of green land in the otherwise largely industrial neighborhood of South Park, Seattle. A neighborhood with a rich history in activism and community gardening, but also known for continuously polluted air and topsoil from surrounding manufacturing facilities – and known for the contaminated Duwamish River, a superfund site which it is estimated will take 27 years to clean up.

The project to restore this creek has been a long one: What started as a trash and litter cleanup in the 1980s turned into a multi-objective restorative project spearheaded by the late environmental activist John Beal. The goals? To reestablish the Lost Fork of Hamm Creek at Marra Farm, part of the larger Hamm Creek watershed which encompasses at least an acre of land, as an ecosystem, complete with native plants, bugs, birds and even salmon rearing. Although a lot has been done over a span of over 30 years, Nate points out that after the energy put into the Lost Fork of Hamm Creek by John Beal and the daylighting process in 2000, “Over the last few years, there hasn’t been ongoing stewardship. Until now.”

Alas, after years of hard work from the community and beyond, salmon fry cannot survive in this ecosystem if people still litter or pollute the water. Alternatively, residents of the South Park community cannot enjoy the benefits of the creek if the water quality is unsafe. So now, Solid Ground has taken on the task of ongoing restorative efforts. Thanks to a generous grant from King Conservation District, as well as additional support from the Subaru of America Foundation and Russell Family Foundation, Lettuce Link staff are building ecosystems and community around the Lost Fork. By integrating our existing partnership with Concord International Elementary School, the creek is a learning tool for students. Last spring, Lettuce Link’s Education Coordinator Amelia Swinton used science-based curricula put together by Mountains to Sound Greenway with 5th graders during classes at Marra Farm, incorporating water quality safety testing including measuring the pH levels, temperature and turbidity.

There have also been ongoing discussions between Lettuce Link staff and community members about the design and content for new signage around the creek in order to enhance general knowledge about the safety and history of the creek. “We want to increase awareness about it. People have passively used the creek. You know, on a hot day they might stick their feet in it or kids might be playing in it. So we wanted to make sure that the water was safe,” Nate says.

Regarding the future, “We plan to take out invasive species like English ivy and Himalayan Blackberry and plant over 200 native plants in October,” Nate tells me.  And as for releasing fry into the streams, “The pipes downstream might be too clogged with sediment for the salmon to successfully pass through. Hatcheries may not give up their fry unless they’re sure the salmon can thrive.” But there’s still a possibility for another salmon run in Seattle’s backyard. “Right now, we’re doing more research on the conditions downstream,” he assures me.

I hope it is possible to have a living, breathing ecosystem, one where plants, animals and humans can live in harmony. If one can build community with the help of a 200-foot-long splinter of running water, then I’m a believer.

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Want to help with the Hamm Creek Restoration Project? Join us on South Park Saturdays, the 1st Saturday of every month, to get involved at Hamm Creek and the Marra Farm Giving Garden or contact lettucelink@solid-ground.org for more information.

40th Anniversary Timeline: 1975 recycling our roots

1975 Armen at Fremont Recycling Station

1975

If it’s difficult to define a career in a few paragraphs, it is impossible to capture the essence of Armen Napoleon Stepanian, a man who has always been larger than life, a myth in his own time, the 5th Honorary Mayor of Fremont, Christopher Columbus of Curb Collection, and one of the founders and early luminaries of the Fremont Public Association (FPA).

In 1975, Armen led the FPA in the creation of Fremont Recycling Station #1, the first source-separated, curb-collection recycling program in the nation. The Recycling Center showcased the political savvy that always informed the agency. While the FPA (renamed Solid Ground in 2007) primarily served the north end, recycling routes included the Mayor of Seattle and nine out of eleven Seattle City Council members, regardless of where they lived, to demonstrate the importance of the program and generate political support.

Of course, recycling is just one chapter of Armen’s amazing story.

A carpenter and display designer from Hells Kitchen, New York City, by way of San Francisco, Armen won the title Honorary Mayor of Fremont against 37 opponents (including a Black Labrador) in an election held on February 27, 1973 and began his reign as Seattle’s only unofficial public official.

While some took the mayoral race as a lark, Armen took the position seriously.

Armen plays a "pool duel" against then Woodland Park Zoo Director Jan van Oosten to benefit the Fremont Food Bank

Armen plays a “pool duel” against then Woodland Park Zoo Director Jan van Oosten to benefit the Fremont Food Bank

In the process of accepting the role of Mayor, he became a raucous force for positive change, a creative and tireless promoter, and one of the guiding lights that led downtown Fremont’s transition from a poverty- and drug-saturated neighborhood into the tie dye-tinged, environmentally-conscious “District that Recycles Itself” and, eventually, into the arty “Center of the Universe.”

He focused local media on Fremont by campaigning to keep the Fremont Bridge painted orange. At the first Fremont Fair (which he helped found), he started the Fremont Food Bank and engaged local leaders in public pool challenges to benefit the Food Bank. Through these and other efforts, Armen earned his national reputation for his role as an environmental evangelist preaching the benefits of source-separation, curb-collection recycling.

Fremont Recycling Station #1 ran for 14 years before leading to the development of the City of Seattle’s and many other municipal curb collection programs.

Armen views recycling as much more than a reduction in waste, or lessening of material extraction from the earth:

Recycling is … theology through technology,” he says. “People don’t understand the spiritual side of it … what people are putting in front of their homes is how they feel about themselves. It is how they feel about their neighbors … about the earth … about The Creator….

“Of the many benefits of recycling, energy is the most critical of all – the energy saved from producing virgin products, the foreign policy implications of consuming less energy, and our own personal relationship to the material – the positive energy we get from recycling.”

When the City of Seattle designed a citywide program, the Fremont Recycling Station #1 did not have the capacity to bid competitively for a collection contract. And the City imagined no role for Armen as an ambassador for curb collection. After signing a five-year agreement not to compete with the City, Armen left the area to continue his recycling career in Indianapolis, IN. Armen is a founding member of the Washington State Recycling Association and  an inaugural member of  its Hall of Fame. While retired and living in Ocean Shores, WA, Armen continues to advocate for a just and caring community.

In this age when Fremont has become one of the most upscale neighborhoods in Seattle – and Solid Ground one of the largest, most stable human service providers in King County – it is hard to imagine that one man, once called by a reporter “a combination of Archbishop Makarios and Phineas T. Barnum,” could do so much to change the face of our community and help set in motion the work that helps so many people today.

 

Learning to write with compassion & understanding

Solid Ground Communications Intern, Kahla Bell-Kato

Solid Ground Communications Intern, Kahla Bell-Kato

My internship with the Communications team at Solid Ground has come to an end, and I can’t help but be awed by my experiences – an education that extends far beyond mastering catchy titles or figuring out Photoshop.

While keeping the audience my focus, it was important to frame my work around the people I write about – our clients. This internship taught me to write with compassion and understanding about subjects I have never experienced. Throughout my time at Solid Ground, I have seen the face of poverty – not the numbers on a chart of statistics, or labels in a book, but glimpses into the lives of people fighting to survive – and it has changed me.

Interviewing employees and volunteers at Solid Ground stands out as my favorite task during my internship. It was incredibly reassuring to see the passion and intensity the people I interviewed expressed about their work. With eyes sparkling, they recounted all the support, aid and comfort their programs provide for their clients. They lamented the struggles their programs face, and begrudged the policies and red tape that perpetuate poverty and oppression. I am grateful I had the opportunity to work with these folks – many of whom have become my role models.

Through anti-racism work at Solid Ground, I have come face-to-face with my own white privilege and have learned that my silence maintains a system of oppression through which I benefit. However uncomfortable these meetings might have been, they gave me fundamental tools to work and interact with diverse groups of people.

From those working on the frontlines to those in the offices at headquarters, everyone is toiling to fashion this agency into a place that holds its responsibility to the community and the people they serve as their number one priority. Their drive and determination to make their community and the agency a better place, despite the struggles and setbacks, has had, perhaps, the biggest influence on me during my time here.

Before taking this internship, I lacked confidence in my skills and was unsure about what career path to take. However, my time at Solid Ground revealed that I have been fortunate – a reality I tend to forget in the day-to-day grind of things. My internship experience makes me grateful for my education and the opportunity I’ve had to fully dedicate myself to this position.

With a Solid Ground spirit, I intend to make the most of all the advantages and opportunities imparted to me. I will take with me far more than I anticipated, the most profound of which, unfortunately, won’t have a place on my resume.

March 2014 Groundviews: ‘We saw a need; we met it’

Groundviews is Solid Ground’s quarterly newsletter for our friends and supporters. Below is the March 2014 Groundviews lead story; please visit our website to read the entire issue online.

Frank Chopp – Washington State Speaker of the House, Solid Ground Senior Advisor and Fremont Public Association Executive Director from 1983 to 2000 – began his more than 40 years of success as a rabble-rouser, innovator, community builder and legislator around a Bremerton dinner table. 

Frank Chopp 2013: WA State Speaker of the House & Solid Ground Senior Advisor

Frank Chopp 2013: WA State Speaker of the House & Solid Ground Senior Advisor

He recounts, “Quite often when I was growing up, my dad and my mom would talk about politics, literally at the kitchen table. There was a lot of talk about how much my dad and mom believed in labor organizing, in public service. They grew up in Roslyn, WA, where there used to be a bunch of coal mines. The working conditions and wages there were so bad that they went on strike. My mom and dad would meet for dates on the picket lines outside the coal mines. Mom was tear-gassed by the state troopers during one of those strikes.”

Responding to community 

Frank graduated from the University of Washington and worked as a community organizer in the mid-70s in the Cascade neighborhood. In 1976, he was hired by the City of Seattle’s North Seattle Community Service Center, which supported the then fledgling Fremont Public Association (FPA). “It was very much an opinionated group, very activist oriented, as well as very creative. We were willing to push the envelope in terms of new things, really responding to community rather than sitting back,” he recalls.

The story of how FPA developed what became Solid Ground’s Transportation services is a great example. “There was a need to provide transportation to the elderly so they could get to doctors’ appointments. We started that with a Jesuit Volunteer, with a beat up old van, picking up people, taking them to their doctors, taking them back home. We saw a need; we met it.” FPA then brought together two smaller van programs to become more effective.

“We also wanted to make a political statement,” Frank says, “because this is about the time when Metro took over Seattle Transit. And transit service in Seattle got reduced for a while, because they were trying to spread it around the County. So as a political statement, we called it Seattle PERSONAL Transit. Then it became an ongoing program.

“So we organized many people with disabilities to go down to the Metro Council and say, ‘Look, you’ve got to provide this on a much more comprehensive basis, not just through a bunch of volunteers.’ We organized a couple hundred people to pack the hearing room.

“The initial reaction from Council staff was negative. But then the councilmembers looked out at the crowd and saw people who were very agitated and motivated, and they said, ‘Well, we should start doing something here.’ Eventually it became a much bigger program, serving all of King County with professional drivers and vans, and public funding. So it was a tremendous success.”

Frank adds, “FPA also aggressively pursued coalition building to get more done, organizing the Seattle Food Committee and then the Coalition for Survival Services, comprised of food, shelter and health care providers. The Coalition initially leveraged $500,000 from the City, which over time has grown to more than $40 million in health care and human services.”

Circa 1988: (r) FPA Executive Director Frank Chopp with (l) FPA Board President John Howell

Circa 1988: (r) FPA Executive Director Frank Chopp with (l) FPA Board President John Howell

On the cutting edge of new ideas

Frank describes how his experience with the FPA informed his role as Speaker of the House: “I’m doing the same job there that I was at the FPA; there is no difference. We are trying to figure out the best way to get as much done as possible. So we think carefully about what we see as a need in the community, or across the State, and then we figure out the best way to accomplish that.

“I think it is always important to be on the cutting edge, literally, of new ideas, and looking at new opportunities. You’ve got to constantly be pushing yourself and other people to do more, and also to be as creative as possible.

“As a community organizer, you want the community to be the face of what the need is, and they have to take group action together to get something done. You can actually achieve more if you put the real people who are directly involved front and center; the most effective spokespeople are directly involved.

“You see a need, you see an opportunity and you just go for it!” he says. “Then after you do things, you say, ‘Ok, how should this best be organized?’ The main thing is to start acting, doing things.”

Visit our Timeline of Accomplishments for more information about Solid Ground’s 40+ year history of innovation, partnership and action.

The One Night Count: a lesson in gratitude

SKCCH logoAs we gathered in the wee hours of Friday, January 24 at the Compass Housing Alliance for our initial One Night Count volunteer briefing, I thanked the twinkling stars above it wasn’t raining. Over 800 of us would spread out across King County to search for and count people sleeping outside without shelter. The One Night Count (organized by the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness) would be a snapshot of homelessness between the hours of 2 and 5am.

As the count began, my team and I quietly weaved our way around the streetlamp-lit areas first, peeking into parked cars and doorways. There was no one in sight. It seemed as if everyone else in the world had vanished. That feeling was probably what allowed me to peer into the dark gaps between dumpsters, or make my way into the spaces between buildings I would never, under normal circumstances, walk into at night. The mood was warm – light, like the glow from the lamps overhead. But that would change.

The cold reality
As the condensation slowly turned to frost, the warmth I had felt was replaced with a shiver. A large park was last on our map to check. We had been told before setting out that we would likely find people here; people really do come to this park to sleep. I was fearful; beyond the reach of the sentinel streetlights, the shadowed expanse behind the vine-choked fence was eerie and unnerving.

It’s one thing to think about the experience of homelessness while warm and safe in bed, but actually going to places where people without homes might sleep was entirely different. I couldn’t imagine having to decide where to sleep each night, let alone the circumstances that would lead me to believe that entering a dark park – without a flashlight – was the best option. What I felt was probably only a glimpse of the fear people experiencing homelessness deal with every day.

We found no one sleeping in the park, however – perhaps we just couldn’t see them. As we ended our search and began our walk back to our group’s meeting spot, we admitted how relieved we were to have a zero tally. That’s when we met John (name changed for privacy).

A face of homelessness
I knew immediately when I saw him that he was homeless. No one, if they could help it, would be out wearing only a thin hoodie and track pants. He threw a smile our way then politely asked us who we were with – noting the bright yellow “volunteer” stickers plastered all over our clothes. A member of our group explained what we were doing out so late at night. John paused and looked down, and then said that he, too, was without a home.

He told us his story and of the complications preventing him from getting the help he needed. All the problems he recounted wove perfectly into the pattern of homelessness – all the issues that agencies like ours are fighting to dismantle. As we talked, he shivered uncontrollably, so strongly at one point he almost lost his balance. And then, diplomatically, he asked us if there was anything we could do to help.

My coworker and I locked eyes; no words were needed to express how we felt. We had nothing to offer at that moment. If we felt helpless, John’s feelings of utter hopelessness must have been overwhelming. Indeed, he started to sob for a moment in the crook of his arm, hiding his face so we couldn’t see. With tears still caught in the lines under his eyes, he explained his medical condition and the barriers he’s faced seeking treatment.

Clearly suffering from the cold, he said he needed to go to the hospital and asked if we could call 9-1-1, so we did. Fearful of what might have happened to him if we hadn’t been there to call for help, I was suddenly grateful for the icy phone I squeezed in my pocket. He asked us to stay with him until the ambulance arrived. He was still shaking and having trouble standing, so we walked over to the stairs behind us so he could sit. We continued to talk – about his childhood and how he got his name – named after his father’s wartime buddy. He made jokes about what it was like fighting for bathroom time in a house with four sisters.

A human connection
When the fire truck pulled up, he held out his hand to me to shake as he thanked us. He did not let go, but held my hand as he continued to talk on, not wanting us to leave. I didn’t try to pull away. How long had it been since he was able to just talk to someone – for someone to listen? How long since he was comforted by another person’s touch? No, I wouldn’t let go until he did – or until the paramedics made me, which is what happened.

We didn’t wait to see if they would take John somewhere or leave him; after touching base with our whole group, we went our separate ways. And as I drove by on my way home, John was gone. I hoped he was on his way to a warm bed.

The impact of that night lasted far longer than the cold that soaked into my bones after only three hours outside. I shivered the rest of the morning thinking about John and my experience participating in the One Night Count – my electric blanket turned all the way up. Two pairs of socks, two sweaters, a hoodie, and two pairs of pants weren’t enough to warm me – inside or out. While the experience of homelessness is impossible to understand in just a few hours’ time, I came away with a very important lesson that I keep reminding myself of: Be grateful for all that I have – not just a warm bed or a cell phone, but a loved one’s open ears and caring embrace.

If you are interested in getting involved or would like more information on the One Night Count, please visit: www.homelessinfo.org.

Remembering Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela imageNelson Mandela, who shattered the chains of apartheid in South Africa and became a courier for the country’s new multi-racial democracy, passed away December 5. As an international icon of social justice and peace, Mandela inspired generations of people from across the globe and every walk of life to fight injustice and break down barriers. Mandela’s determination and courage in the face of adversity and suffering resonates with us all at Solid Ground – in our work and personal lives. We would like to take a moment to honor his life and mourn his passing. 

A word from Gordon McHenry Jr., President & CEO of Solid Ground:

“This week, the world paused to reflect, respect and rejoice the life of Nelson Mandela. It is appropriate and necessary that Solid Ground do the same, for his legacy is directly relevant to our mission of empowerment and equity for those who are suffering from racism and oppression. He modeled the behaviors that reflect the values of Solid Ground – courage, perseverance, leadership, integrity and compassion.

“Nelson Mandela was a warrior for social justice who developed strategies and tactics that were confrontational, caused discomfort and often controversial; actions that were ultimately successful in achieving long-overdue fundamental changes to benefit persons of color in southern Africa and throughout the world. He was a liberator of people who were oppressed and those who inflicted the oppression; he helped create the world’s 25th largest nation-state, and he succeeded in achieving reconciliation and collaborative leadership.

“I am sad that he is no longer with us, but I rejoice because he has given us a legacy which, if we follow, will enable our region to achieve the noble goal where all of our residents have access to equal justice and opportunities to thrive. I will always be grateful for the life and gifts of Nelson Mandela.”

Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity; it is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life … Recognize the world is hungry for action, not words. Act with courage and vision … Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”

-Nelson Mandela

Kira Zylstra, Stabilization Services Director, shared her sentiments about Mandela and what the above quote signifies to her: “In my mind, I don’t know that anyone can inspire and motivate people for positive change like Nelson Mandela. I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa during my studies in college and again several years ago. I was moved by the people I met and by the obvious impact that Mandela had on improving such extreme injustices in South Africa and across the world. I am amazed at his ability to continue to pursue what is right and just amongst so much adversity. His words here are simple and clear because the importance of overcoming poverty is simple; it is ‘an act of justice.’ ”

Celestine Berrysmith, King Co. Housing Stability Project Case Manager, writes a farewell to Nelson Mandela:

“There are few people who are truly extraordinary visionaries. Nelson Mandela was one of those people. His vision to end apartheid in Africa was a vision of monumental proportions, and only his commitment and dedication, his complete belief in the cause, sense of integrity, and selflessness allowed him to be successful in achieving his dream. His focus on achieving this goal put his life in danger on many occasions, as well as taking him away from those he loved for many years, yet he moved forward with his vision, not allowing fear to cloud the way. In doing so, he changed the world. This action, and the way he lived his life, were an example to me that shines a light on how to achieve my own goals. The way he lived his life also shows me how to model positive behavior for the upcoming generation.”

Steve Thornton, Network Administrator, expresses that he was “lucky enough to have seen the great man, in Boston in 1990. I was literally a mile away; he was a speck in the distance, and a slightly larger speck on one of the giant TVs they had placed on barges in the Charles River. But the size of that crowd, and his words, and the feeling that day engendered in everyone who was there, made me weep. He directly changed the world, utterly changed it, and that doesn’t happen very often. A colossus.”

In his article “Remembering Nelson Mandela,” EJ Juarez, Development & Communications Coordinator with the Statewide Poverty Action Network, recalls that “Nelson Mandela, known affectionately by his Xhosa tribal name Madiba, was making world history while I was watching Ninja Turtles. My first awareness of Mandela was a drawing of him, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks holding hands above the chalkboard. The teacher always mentioned him, but there was no picture book, no video or worksheet to help my 8-year-old self understand the substantial impact he would make on the world as I was growing up.

“We never seemed to see the revolution when it happened. I was too young, but I feel it now. Unfortunately, our children always hear of the hero afterwards. I wish I could have had him as a role model as a child. Mandela’s life was seemingly built for the idealism of youth. He took the system and shook it with a vibrancy and grace that produced worldwide impact.”

We’ll close these reflections with the following quote, read at Solid Ground on December 6 at 2pm, prior to a request by our agency’s Black Affinity Group for a moment of silence in honor of Nelson Mandela.

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

-Nelson Mandela, Pretoria Supreme Court, April 20, 1964

November 2013 Groundviews: Connecting to community

Groundviews is Solid Ground’s quarterly newsletter for our friends and supporters. Below is our November 2013 lead story; please visit our website to read the entire issue online.

Discount internet services help Mike connect with resources that improve his quality of life.

Discount internet services help Mike connect with resources that improve his quality of life.

For a guy like Mike, every dollar counts. Due to health issues, he lives on very limited Social Security Disability Income (SSDI), so access to free and low-cost resources really helps him make ends meet and stay connected with his family, friends and doctors. For this reason, Solid Ground’s ConnectUp program has become essential to his day-to-day well-being.

The program originated in 1991 as Community Voice Mail (CVM), offering free voice mail numbers that can be checked from any phone for people experiencing homelessness or unable to afford phone services. Since then, telecommunications technologies have transformed, creating many new ways for people to stay in touch. So this past year, the program adopted a new name – ConnectUp – to reflect its new services. 

Today, in addition to free voice mail, the program connects people living on low incomes with free cell phones and low-cost computers, internet access, home phones and smart phones. Additionally, through a service called the Resource Wire, ConnectUp broadcasts information via multiple formats (voice mail, email and social media), letting people know about a wide variety of community resources such as job opportunities, housing services, healthcare, family and veterans resources, and more.

A lifeline to community
Several years ago, Mike lived through a period of homelessness up in Skagit County. When he became eligible for SSDI, it enabled him to get transitional housing in Seattle and live closer to his family. That’s when he first discovered free voice mail through CVM (now ConnectUp).

He describes what this service meant to him: “I always tell Lambert how helpful this is for me. When I first got it, I would have some way people could get a hold of me. I had a phone, but I was paying by the minute for it, so I only got a little bit at a time. It was costing me a lot of money, and I don’t have a lot of money. So then Jeffrey, my little brother, told me about you, and man, I’ve been with you ever since!”

Through ConnectUp, he also got free cell phone and low-cost internet services, which helped him establish relationships with doctors and medical services so critical to his health. But later when Mike had to move to Renton in order to use his housing voucher – far from his doctors in Seattle – ConnectUp’s Program Supervisor Lambert Rochfort connected Mike with a Solid Ground Family Assistance Benefits Attorney. “I called her because I was having medical issues in Renton, and she gave me some contacts and told me what I needed to do” to get permission to use his voucher back in Seattle. Thanks to having reliable ways to stay in touch with his doctor, friends and the attorney, he says they “got all the paperwork done, and I was able to get out of downtown Renton and closer to my doctor and other resources.”

Currently, Mike is happy that Solid Ground’s free Downtown Circulator Bus has a stop right outside his apartment building. “I like it; I had surgery done on my ankle, and I don’t drive.” But he says he hopes the service will eventually expand its route, because grocery shopping is still tough for him. “My arms start hurting, and I can only carry up to about 15 pounds.”

Mike's free cell phone helps him stay in touch with his family & doctors.

Mike’s free cell phone helps him stay in touch with his family & doctors.

A lifeline to resources

Mike’s favorite thing about ConnectUp is the Resource Wire: “That is so much help to me. If there’s something going on with medical for free, or checkups, dental or haircuts – Lambert puts out voice mails and says what’s going on.”

Mike gets both voice mails and emails and says it’s nice to get the messages in both formats: “I don’t read or write well,” so voice mail is more useful to him, “because I can hear it.” But emails help as well, “Then if I need to copy it, or let somebody else know about it, I can send it to ‘em. My daughter has two little ones; she’s single, and she don’t make very much money. He put out a voice mail about school supplies; I called my daughter, and she took her little ones and got some paper and books and a backpack.”

Via the Resource Wire, he heard about the Community Resource Exchange, an event where people living on low incomes receive a wealth of information and free services such as haircuts and dental care, right on the spot. Mike says, “I like going to that; you can get a lot of help there.”

Returning the favor
While Mike has received quite a few resources via ConnectUp, he’s also given back in spades, participating in focus groups that led to both expanded services and the program name change. He says, “I like the name ConnectUp. It’s easy to remember, and tells me that the program does a lot of different things.”

He’s also helping to complete the information loop: Through a friend of his, he learned about a device which connects to your internet and a home phone, allowing you to make and receive phone calls for free. Mike told ConnectUp about the device, and Lambert tells him, “I heard about this from you, and we’ve been letting lots of other people know.”

In a situation like his, Mike could easily live a very isolated life. But via these services, he says, “I call my daughter and I call Jeffrey – I call my doctors and my doctors can call me.” In the past, “I always hit little dead-end walls. But with Solid Ground and ConnectUp, I mostly get over ‘em, one way or another. If you don’t have the resource, you know somebody where I can go get the resource. Solid Ground sure puts a lot of information out there! They do good work for people!”

For more information on ConnectUp, visit www.solid-ground.org/ConnectUp or contact the program at connectup@solid-ground.org or 206.694.6771.

September 2013 Groundviews newsletter: Holding herself accountable

Groundviews is Solid Ground’s quarterly newsletter for our friends and supporters. Below is our September 2013 lead story; please visit our website to read the entire issue online.

Sally Mary de Leon (r) with Financial Fitness Boot Camp Program Supervisor, Judy Poston (l)

Sally Mary de Leon (r) with Financial Fitness Boot Camp Program Supervisor, Judy Poston (l)

Sally Mary de Leon’s world flipped upside down when she finally got the courage to divorce her abusive husband, leaving her with nothing but her two children and a mountain of debt.

She says, “I just wanted him out – so I took the mortgage, I took all the debt, while he took everything else. He took the money; he took my stuff. So I essentially had to start over.” To make that new start possible, she filed for bankruptcy in 2010. 

But as a survivor of domestic violence, a veteran and an LPN who spent five intense years working in hospice care, Sally Mary now found herself physically and emotionally unable to work full time. She says, “I carried other people’s trauma, so it added to my own personal baggage.”

Sally Mary and her kids were living in transitional housing when she took a money management class at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Women’s Trauma & Recovery Center in Seattle, taught by Judy Poston, Program Supervisor of Solid Ground’s Financial Fitness Boot Camp. Sally Mary says, “I was really skeptical at first. The thing was, I didn’t have any money to manage! But then she presented on credit – writing your creditors and asking them to reduce your debt or eliminate it – and also going over your credit report and what can be done about it.”  

She’s there for me
Even after finding out that financial empowerment services were available to her, Sally Mary says, “It was really hard to ask for help. Because I’ve always done everything myself. There is a stigma that surrounds me, that when you have a handout, it’s bad. I felt incapable; I felt worthless.”

She changed her tune after a few one-to-one sessions with Judy, realizing, “It really isn’t bad. When I had my hand out, she didn’t put stuff on my hand – she held my hand! She essentially led me! I’ve learned through her that I don’t have to be ashamed. I’m not the only one that goes through this. And she’s constantly telling me that she’s there for me, which is great. Every time I look back, she’s right behind!”

As a financial coach, Judy says she’s learned from Sally Mary the importance of establishing relationships when working with vets. “A lot of people who have PTSD, the most important thing is to not be time consumed – to be willing to sit and listen to their story – even if you never talk about finances the first two or three appointments. Building trust is huge.”

Sally Mary agrees, “You definitely did that for me, because I wouldn’t have been able to open up the way I did. I am very grateful that I met Judy and for Financial Fitness Boot Camp being available. She’s very willing to listen and be open, and you’re absolutely not judgmental.”

Through Judy, Sally Mary found she qualified for a continuum of housing stabilization programs. “She was essentially a gateway to everything I’ve been doing with Solid Ground.” And Sally Mary says when she was granted VA Supportive Housing, “I needed not only help learning how to manage the money that I have and prioritizing what bills to pay, I was able to get help in a down payment for housing.” 

Sally Mary speaks her truth about predatory lending & debt collection practices on KCBS 91.3 FM

Sally Mary speaks her truth about predatory lending & debt collection practices on KCBS 91.3 FM

A reciprocal relationship
From the beginning of her engagement with Solid Ground, Sally Mary has been an asset, referring other vets to our services and connecting Judy with helpful information. Judy says, “She’s a walking resource book; when I have questions about VA/vets’ resources, this is who I can call.”

After hearing Sally Mary’s story, Judy connected her with Solid Ground’s advocacy efforts through the Statewide Poverty Action Network. Sally Mary spoke out on public radio about her struggles getting a checking account and her experiences with predatory debt collection practices (known as Zombie Debt). She says when she filed for bankruptcy, all of her debt (except for student loans and parking/traffic tickets) should have been dismissed, but “I literally have three debts that keep coming back to me through different creditors. It never fails, every three months there’s a new company contacting me. That’s not fair. If I did my part, why do they have to keep bringing back my old debt?”

She also spoke about predatory lending and how – thanks to Judy’s advice – she avoided the payday loan trap. Sally Mary says she was excited to get involved with Poverty Action because, “There are so many big people speaking for other big people, so I feel like us little people gotta stick together, because there’s a lot more of us. I see us as ants: As people, we carry a huge strength among us, and as we work together as a group, we can definitely move mountains.”

A work in progress
But despite moving her own financial mountains, Sally Mary is hard on herself. She says, “At this point, I think I’m a work in progress. I’ll admit it: I have this cycle of spending. When I feel ashamed, I go and buy something, and I feel good – but then I feel bad that I’ve spent the money and I feel shameful again.” Breaking into an infectious laugh, she says, “Judy gives me a lot of great ideas. Half of them I’ve implemented. I do try to be cognizant of what I’m doing, but it’s hard to remain honest with myself when no one’s holding me accountable.” Ever the coach, Judy counters, “I always like to tell Sally Mary that she has to hold herself accountable; that’s where it all starts. And I’m here as a support.”

Then Judy rattles off many ways Sally Mary has been accountable: “You’ve identified that you’re going to save this much per month – what it’s going to take to put that amount in the bank every month. You made the choices, and you’ve stuck with everything that we talked about and that you planned to do.” Sally agrees, “I definitely want to build self-esteem, and one of the ways to do that is having financial independence.”

In six months, if all goes well, Sally Mary’s student loans will be dismissed, and she’ll be debt-free. “I went from crawling to wheelchair to crutches, and I’m at a cane now. And who knows, maybe I’ll always need a cane? But at least I’m standing on my own two feet. And one thing I’ve learned from Judy is be forgiving. I’m still working on it!”

For more info on Financial Fitness Boot Camp, please visit: 
www.solid-ground.org/Programs/Housing/Financial

Living on a low income in Washington State? Poverty Action wants to hear from you!

Advocates in Olympia on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, 2013

Help Poverty Action create change in our state!

Poverty Action is committed to making the voice of everyday citizens stronger in the Washington State capitol – especially people living on low incomes who have all too often been ignored in halls of power.

Together, we’re working to eliminate the root causes of poverty by advocating for statewide legislative policies that help people meet their basic needs and have opportunities to prosper.

Every year, Poverty Action goes around the state to listen carefully to people living on low incomes. We want to learn what issues you are facing and enlist your help to advocate for policy solutions that will address the root causes of poverty and provide equal opportunities for everyone.

To make this happen, we need your input. The information you give us informs our requests to lawmakers. Your stories show our elected representatives a more realistic picture of what it means to be living on a low income.

Please join us for an upcoming Listening Session and share your wisdom and stories. You will receive a $20 stipend for your time. Onsite childcare and dinner provided. Registration is required.

We also support you in telling your lawmakers what you told us. After the listening session, we will have a free advocacy training to give you the tools you need to effectively share your story with lawmakers in order to create change. Local state lawmakers have been invited. Now we just need you!

Poverty Action Listening Sessions 2013:

KENT: Aug. 28-29

EVERETT: Sept. 11-12

TRI-CITIES/PASCO: Sept. 25-26

SPOKANE: October 9-10

For more information, visit www.povertyaction.org. To register for a listening session or free advocacy training, contact Mallori at 1.866.789.7726 or email mallori@povertyaction.org.

When homelessness hits home

Chalkboard art by Sand Point Housing resident children

Chalkboard art by Sand Point Housing resident children

While all of us who work and volunteer for Solid Ground are deeply committed to ending homelessness and addressing its root causes, few of us have had to face the trauma of it directly – either through our own experiences or those of family or close friends. Solid Ground’s
Board President, Lauren McGowan, is one of those exceptions for whom homelessness has hit home.

Lauren lost her mother on Monday, July 15, after years of struggle with untreated mental illness that led to addiction and homelessness. The heartbreaking irony is that Lauren serves as Associate Director of Ending Homelessness at United Way of King County (UWKC), and despite her and her family’s ongoing efforts to connect her mother with the support she needed to be safe and well, the systems failed them.

Lauren shares her mother’s deeply personal story in a UWKC blog post, “Love you, Love you more,” published on 7/19/13. It provides insight into her commitment to end homelessness and her dedication to Solid Ground, and is a poignant reminder that there is much, much work to be done to fix the holes in our community safety nets.

Love you, Love you more

I first learned that my mom was going to become homeless while sitting in a hotel room outside of Venice. I was traveling across Europe with my best friends and celebrating my new job on United Way’s ending homelessness team. I thought it would be a temporary situation that I could quickly fix (I like to fix things)…little did I know that it would be almost 6 years before it would end. At the time I could not have imagined that it would end like this:

“A woman’s body was discovered behind 1 West Walk, in the area of Captain Thomas Boulevard and Campbell Avenue, at 8:51 p.m., police said. Police have identified her as Francis McGowan, 56, who was known to police and had no known address, according to police. Police said there was a liquor bottle near her body and no obvious indications of foul play.”

Tragic? Depressing? Heartbreaking? Yes. But her story isn’t unique. Too many people die on the streets each year as a result of inadequate services and systems to help people with chronic mental health issues and a breakdown of our social service system.

My mom, Fran, was a soft spoken CT native who would do anything for her family. She chaperoned school field trips, made the most amazing cupcakes, and designed elaborate Halloween Costumes for her quirky kids. Among them, a Pepsi Can, KFC Bucket, and Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall. My mom was a stellar list maker, creative problem solver, and an avid reader. She loved her kids and was our best advocate – at school, in the dance studio, and on the field.

Unfortunately my mom suffered from depression, anxiety and a host of other severe mental health issues. They went undiagnosed and untreated for far too long. She used vodka to cope with the pain and this grew into a chronic substance abuse problem. By the time she became homeless, she was already a “frequent flyer” in the emergency room for various incidents related to alcohol abuse.

While my mom was homeless she went through dozens of rehab programs She always excelled in them – she was a gold star student. But the transition to housing never went well. She couldn’t maintain sobriety as required by most transitional housing programs. She bounced from program to program, wait list to wait list, all the while using the jail and hospital systems as places to sober up.

I knew that she needed housing first. A program model that would provide her with a stable roof over head – even if she continued to drink. But CT doesn’t have enough of these programs and I met many case managers along the way who didn’t believe in the “housing first” philosophy. We were stuck with Band-Aids to a problem that required delicate surgery.

My mom spent too many cold winter nights behind a church because she hated the shelters. The bugs, the screaming, the fighting…she couldn’t deal with it. She felt safe outside as long as she could end the night with a text or a call to say, “Love you, love you more.”

At this point in the story many people ask, “What about the family?” We did what we could of course (although there is more I wish I had done). I always made sure she had a phone so we could maintain connection. My Springwire friends taught me that a connection is among the most important thing someone has when they struggle with homelessness. There were hundreds of hotel rooms, bank transfers, an apartment, and even a search party when she went missing one Christmas. But we were losing the battle against mental illness and substance abuse.

Early in 2013 things got pretty bad with my mom. The alcohol abuse had taken a toll on her and her loved ones. She was staying outside again. I called case managers and outreach workers with little success – “She doesn’t want help,” they said. I even tried but failed to have her committed to a Mental Hospital. (CT has very strong patient protection laws). She ended up in a Women’s Prison for several days because of outstanding warrants – largely related to being homeless.

It is too late for my mom but not too late for thousands of others who are living outside and struggling with mental illness. It is simply unacceptable for this to continue happening. We need to raise awareness and empathy for individuals and families who are struggling. We need to band together and fight for better policies and practices. I hope to start a dialogue and welcome your ideas.

The good news is that my mom spent the last few months of her life in a rehab program that seemed to go quite well. I saw her over Memorial Day weekend and she was tan, confident, and optimistic about the future. I was too. While that didn’t last, I am glad it is my lasting memory of her.

Love you mom. Love you more.

June 2013 Groundviews newsletter: Finding her voice

Groundviews is Solid Ground’s quarterly newsletter for our friends and supporters. Below is our June 2013 lead story; visit our website to read the entire issue online.

Renee K. Jones (center front, in a red coat) at the MLK Day 2013 rally on the capitol steps In Olympia, WA

Renee K. Jones (center front, in a red coat) at the MLK Day 2013 rally on the capitol steps In Olympia, WA

Renee K. Jones is a busy woman. She’s a single mom of two preschool-age girls. She’s in college full time, working toward a BA in Social Work at the University of Washington, having graduated with honors from Highline Community College. She also works 20 hours a week and volunteers at a domestic violence agency one day a week. On top of it all, she frequently speaks publically: to her legislators in Olympia, WA, to groups learning about the impacts of domestic violence – even delivering Highline’s 2012 commencement speech.  

But in the fall of 2011, Renee didn’t yet know the power of her voice. At the time, domestic violence had left her and her daughters homeless, living in transitional housing, and struggling to make ends meet. Then, through the Statewide Poverty Action Network’s advocacy training, Renee found that not only does her story matter, she has access to all the tools she needs to express it.

As Renee puts it, “I had escaped my violent situation, and through the housing program, Poverty Action came and spoke about advocacy training – how to be your own advocate and speak out on behalf of issues. I am a TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] recipient, and I rely on Working Connections Childcare and a lot of things that the state was looking to cut.”

At the advocacy training, Renee found out about the annual Poverty Action at the Capitol event in Olympia, bringing together people struggling to get by on low incomes along with their allies to learn about issues impacting people living in poverty, then guiding them to frame their stories and share them with their legislators, face to face.

Renee says, “I was very excited for the first time to be able to participate in that, because I knew that the potential budget cuts would really impact my life. In Olympia, I raised my hand and shared a little bit of my story. And the staff from Poverty Action pulled me to the side and asked if I could go and speak to some of the legislative representatives. And that’s what I did, the first time! I just jumped right on board.”

Renee speaks with Q13 Fox News political analyst C.R. Douglas after sharing her story at a legislative press conference to save TANF.

Renee speaks with Q13 Fox News political analyst C.R. Douglas after sharing her story at a legislative press conference to save TANF.

Since her initial experience in Olympia, Renee has been an advocate on fire. In March 2012, she published her story in an Op-Ed in the Tacoma News Tribune and also testified at a Washington State legislative hearing. Thanks to her actions and those of other activists, no new cuts were made to TANF, and some funds were restored to Working Connections Childcare.

“The first time I went down – to be very, very honest – I was sitting here thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, this millions of dollars that they’re looking to cut from low-income families, there’s no way that my voice will make a difference.’” But, she says, “To have the support and direction of the Poverty Action staff – to take my story and not alter it, but empower it to explain it to others, and for that to be the pivotal reason why things were not cut – is an amazing feeling. Beyond amazing; I can’t even explain it. It made me feel like I have a voice.”

Here’s an excerpt from Renee’s testimony:

    … As I worked 40-hours per week in a minimum wage position, I struggled to afford paying for basic necessities including rent, utilities, food, childcare, diapers and basic hygiene items. When my meager checks would arrive, I was forced to decide what we had to be without that month. Sometimes that meant no diapers, sometimes that meant no toilet paper or shampoo, sometimes it meant I wouldn’t be able to do laundry that month. Every cent was spent monthly, and I still wasn’t able to afford what it took to survive.
“… It has taken me four years, but I am finally at a point where I have begun to reach stability. Living off of $348 per month, I have had to be very creative with finances. We certainly still struggle, but through accessing state assistance, I have been able to attend school and will be graduating with honors this spring – an education that is critical to getting a better paying job, gaining full self-sufficiency and keeping my family from reverting back to dependence on the system. … TANF isn’t about luxuries, it’s about necessities.”

Renee says speaking to her legislators is “nerve-wracking, but phenomenal. It’s so wonderful to be on this journey and be able to advocate, not just for myself, but for 60,000 other people in Washington State who really rely on this. There’s a lot of stigma behind welfare recipients and a lot of the things that happen within the system. So I wanted to explain how this program does help. Cutting this would not help anybody, it would just create a bigger problem.

“This is how my experience has shaped this – and I know that other people are going through it – and I want to help other people come through this as well. And to know that my voice does make a difference is an incredible feeling.”

For more information about the Statewide Poverty Action Network, visit www.povertyaction.org or email info@povertyaction.org.

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