Opinion

MIYFS: Caring for others is Island value

Gordon Hill
ISLAND FORUM

Three years ago it was my privilege to make an oral history video documentary about Mercer Island called “Dawn on the Island.” I interviewed people including George Clarke, who moved to the Island in 1908, and Ted Rand and Ruth Mary Close, who were both born on the Island in 1917. Clarke and Rand have since died.

Each of them described a tight community in which everyone knew everyone else. To get off the Island, people rode in a steamer named the “Dawn.” It was a funky little boat. Nuki Fellows reported that it sank three times at the dock. People talked to each other while they traveled, the men gathered around the engine in the boiler room where they discussed politics and the affairs of the day, the women and children chatting up front in the parlor. They knew what was going on in their neighbors’ lives, and if anyone had trouble or needed help, they were there for each other. They were all in the same boat. Literally.

Today we don’t know our neighbors like that. We may know many Islanders, but for some of us it’s been a few years since we talked. We know each other through school, or politics, or social organizations. We represent a network of common interests, but there are many more people on this Island completely outside of that network. We don’t know them. We don’t know their troubles and needs.

I’ve directed eight plays at Youth Theatre Northwest. I also served on the organization’s board for seven years, five as co-president, when we built the current theater. Some of the young actors I’ve had the pleasure of working with are just all-around amazing. These young people seem to be able to do anything: terrific actors, superb in academics, great athletes, accomplished musicians.

Others are completely committed to the theater, counting the hours until they can get to rehearsal. They might not be as “popular” at school, or fit in quite as well anywhere else, but it doesn’t matter, the theater is their home. It’s their society, it’s where they do their best work. Still others are on the edge, and it’s a toss-up whether they will give themselves over to the discipline of the theater or get caught up in drugs or alcohol and hanging out with the “wrong crowd.”

Some aren’t on the edge; they’re completely outside, in the margins. For any number of reasons, they aren’t part of a healthy society, or they don’t have good role models. These are the young people, the ones who may not have anyone else, for whom Youth and Family Services exists to help.

The recent storm showed us another aspect of the Island. My parents were without power for 10 days. In our neighborhood people really came together to help each other out. “Do you need this?” “Are you OK with that? “It was great, and it was the closest we’d ever been with each other. We even had an “Electricity appreciation party” when it was all over. But it also really showed how isolated we are as an Island. We were sort of off the grid when it came to getting our power back.

It’s also like that with fund raising. If you go to an off-Island, grant-giving organization to get money, they’re mostly not interested. We’re an affluent community. They can’t justify to their constituents or boards giving money to Mercer Island. It looks a lot better to give to Rainier Valley, Burien or Covington. We’re on our own.

None of us is that far away from being in need. The death of a key person in our lives, a financial reversal, bad luck, the dice didn’t roll our way - any of us could find ourselves needing help. We are them, there is no difference. Youth and Family Services is here for all of us. It helps infants, through their work with families and young mothers. It helps young people, especially with counseling, and drug and alcohol abuse programs. It helps support families in times of difficulty. It helps seniors with a whole range of end-of-life issues.

Communities, societies and nations are judged by how they care for the weakest, and most in need. Not the people with clout, with resources. How will we be judged? I hope our epitaph is “Our children surpassed us.”

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