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Philanthropy in Spokane 

Merilee Roloff


Merilee Roloff's office is upstairs


from Crosswalk -- the downtown


homeless teen shelter. When we meet on an early Monday morning, that night's clients are still asleep downstairs, but Roloff is ready to roll.


"First thing in the morning I spend some time putting out fires -- usually it's client-related fires, like if someone has gotten in trouble or someone attempted suicide," says Roloff, who's the executive director of Volunteers of America in Spokane. "Then it's the money; I look at the budget, where are we at and what are we doing. And sometimes there are personnel problems that need to be solved -- and I take and return a million phone calls."


She smiles in this charming way that lights up her entire face.


"Does the job keep me awake at night? Oh, yeah it does, quite often," says Roloff. "But you have got to have a hopeful attitude. It really helps that I have been here for 18 years and worked in most of the programs. I was the first director of Crosswalk."


Today, Roloff oversees the 10 programs that fall under Volunteer of America's umbrella, including Crosswalk, Alexandria's House and the Inland Mediation Center.


"We have about 700 different volunteers at any one time, because we have so many different programs," says Roloff. "We have regular people who come in once a week, and then we have some who provide their unique talent on fewer occasions." One woman brings sandwiches and other unsold items in from Sacred Heart Hospital every day. Friday nights someone else comes in and gives guitar lessons.


"Everyone has a talent to share. My favorite example of that is the cake decoration classes we do," says Roloff. "I was approached about that 17 years ago for Crosswalk, and I kind of rolled my eyes. But the woman has been coming ever since. What I learned from that was that it really had nothing to do with cake decorating -- it had everything to with her. Social services is all about the people."


Roloff has a degree in political science and originally wanted to go to law school when she got "sidetracked" by a Vista program.


"I started working with elderly people, and I loved it," says Roloff. "I never looked back. I never took a social work class in my life."


Today there is one lawyer in the family: Roloff is married to city council member Steve Eugster.


"But there are so many rewards in my job," continues Roloff. "It's hard, yes, but I have a great network with the other CEOs. You need to give support and get it from each other -- these are the people I can call and say, 'Hey, I'm in despair,' and they listen and help."


So far, donations to VOA are just about like last year -- except for corporate giving which is down.


"Spokane is a generous community, we are doing quite well," she says. "We just got an ad from the national office that really says it all: You don't have to be wealthy to be generous. That's really what it is all about." -- Pia K. Hansen





Jim Sheehan


I was a public defender for 20 years," says Jim Sheehan


with a sigh. "And I saw that a lot of times, facing legal


trouble was the end for people. In other words, people got themselves into criminal problems, and there were things that could have been done earlier in their lives that could have prevented those problems."


It was specifically to combat that lack of legal guidance that Sheehan founded the Center for Justice, a nonprofit legal firm, in Spokane. "Everybody has a voice," Sheehan continues. "They just don't get to express themselves -- they don't get heard -- because if you have money, you have access to the judicial system; if you don't have money, you don't have access. What we do is circumvent that poverty block and give people the opportunity to have their voice heard even if they don't have money. We don't charge them for legal representation.


"The number of caseloads varies. We're only restricted for what we can do by the amount of money we have, because there is more poverty and oppression than there are available funds."


It's in the providing of those funds that the Center for Justice's largest challenge may lie. As with all endeavors to provide normally high-cost services to low-income families and individuals, the money has to come from an outside source.


"We have donations from private individuals who support the center," Sheehan explains. "People give money to the center, which is a nonprofit -- we accept any donations. But I'm surprised by the lack of support that we get. Part of it is our fault, because we haven't done a lot of soliciting."


Nevertheless, like many philanthropists, Sheehan's contributions don't end with his time and efforts as a lawyer. Despite the hours of work and compassion he has already devoted to the Center for Justice -- he also renovated the building it resides in -- Sheehan finds it impossible not to give financially himself. Or as he puts it, in what is probably a gross underestimate: "I give quite a bit."


--Marty Demarest





Dr. George Bagby


The spirit of Seattle Slew runs all the way to Bangladesh. Just as the thoroughbred once gained fame on the racetrack, his influence now extends all the way to remote villages not far from Calcutta, India.


In the early 1980s, after his trio of Triple Crown wins in 1977, Slew was diagnosed with a serious degenerative condition in his spinal vertebrae. In response, Dr. George Bagby, a Spokane orthopedic surgeon, invented the "spinal cage" or so-called "Bagby Basket," which allows for bone grafts to grow and fuse solidly.


Bagby then developed an interest in charitable giving. "I had gone over to do hospital work in Bangladesh first in 1985 as part of Orthopedics Overseas. I'd come by some money because of the bone basket," says Dr. Bagby, now 80 but still capable of understatement. "Because of a friendship I developed with a Dr. Haque and a Dr. Saltana, an anesthesiology doctor, I became interested in a project to build a hospital near Calcutta in a remote village called Nalta, in Bangladesh."


Bagby then traveled to Bangladesh from Spokane "about 20 times," sharing surgical know-how and conveying needed equipment. "We completed the hospital," he continues, "after about two years of work, in February 2000. It's a 30-bed general hospital, and it's working fairly well." With its four doctors and six nurses, the Nalta Foundation Hospital serves about 250,000 people.


Surprisingly, Bangladeshis don't need orthopedics as much as they need emergency medicine. "The biggest demand for treatment over there is in the field of traffic accidents. The traffic and the drivers over there are just terrible."


Bagby speaks from personal experience: "On my last trip, I fractured my back." Returning from a village outside Dhaka, the Bangladeshi capital, the car Bagby was riding in suffered a blowout. When the driver swerved "to avoid a guy in a rickshaw," Bagby was the only one injured.


Nevertheless, despite the injury and his advanced age, Bagby will return to Nalta "at the end of next month. I'll be teaching and working with the doctors there on using a leveler, a device that makes hip-pinning [for fractured hips] more practical."


Once upon a time, he saved a famous horse. Now, having given pots of money and large blocks of his time to another nation's needy, George Bagby continues to innovate and help. For people caught between colliding cars on the streets of Dhaka, he might just be riding to the rescue.


--Michael Bowen





Kathleen Murray


Spending an afternoon cleaning up a littered patch of roadside is nice, but how about taking your life on the road for a year and volunteering at various organizations -- without pay?


Kathleen Murray is doing precisely that. She's calling it "A Year of Service," and her project will take her to 12 different cities, spending a month as a volunteer in each location. The New York City native was exposed to volunteering and, as she puts it, "the responsibility that we all have to each other," at a young age.


"My mother taught me empathy," says Murray. "I was raised in a really good environment growing up, and I think when you have a lot, you should do a lot."


Murray personifies that attitude. "When you help people, you can't help but be helped," she says. She relies solely on the kindness and support of others to sustain her through this endeavor. Her father donated a car to her cause, and the organizations she is working with have raised money to cover necessary expenses.


Her effort hasn't gone unnoticed, as Murray has been recognized by the Daily Points of Light Program organized by President Bush.


"It's nice to be recognized," says Murray. "But there's a silent army of volunteers who aren't in the paper and they're not congratulated, but they're just doing it anyway because they think it's the right thing to do, and that's what inspires me."


Spokane is the seventh stop on Murray's volunteer spree, which so far "has been overwhelming at times, but very cool."


Murray emphasizes advocating for each agency she is involved with. "Promoting volunteerism is what is most important for me," she says. She carefully selected each program with the help of an organization called Volunteer Match (www.volunteermatch.org) to find the specific agencies. At that site, you can enter your zip code and it will serve up any volunteer organization within 25 miles of your location.


Murray is writing a book about her experiences as she goes along and is also working with director Chris Roe on a documentary about the "A Year of Service" project.


These peripheral activities are a bonus but not her focus. Murray is adamant about her bottom line: "I think anybody can make a difference. When you change your perception, you can change the world."


-- Clint Burgess





Keith Wolter


For a lot of people, losing their jobs, while financially and emotionally challenging, often later proves to be a rich opportunity to craft a vocation that is an even more finely tuned use of one's skills and interests. This is especially true in the case of the director of the North Idaho AIDS Coalition (NIAC), Keith Wolter, who was removed from his position as a Lutheran minister in 1997 for being openly gay. The following year, he got wind that NIAC needed someone to replace a departing half-time employee. When Wolter first came on the job, NIAC operated out of what was basically "a cubicle at Hospice." Now, four years later, the organization inhabits a four-room office suite in downtown Coeur d'Alene and is able to pay for three full-time employees.


When asked what is behind NIAC's growth spurt, Wolter admits "part of it is due to local growth in the AIDS community, and part is due to the fact that people are becoming a lot more aware of some of the services we provide. But quite frankly a lot of it has to do with the fact that we've been really successful at raising money."


The numbers pretty much say it all: NIAC's budget four years ago was $40,000; now it's $235,000. The clients served by the organization numbered a mere 11 in 1997; now NIAC is able to care for 45. Their three areas of focus -- prevention, care and advocacy --have remained the same throughout Wolter's tenure, but their clientele has gradually changed. More than one-third of their HIV-positive clients are now heterosexual women, he says, and they're also finding ways to reach the area's injecting drug users.


I call it our 'Social Mining Project,'" says Wolter. "With the growing meth problem in this area, one of our big challenges has been finding rural injecting drug users and making sure they know about us and how we can help them reduce their risks."


In order to get the word out, NIAC activists go where they know they will reach people -- for instance domestic violence shelters, housing coalitions and drug treatment centers. They have also found entertainment to be a reliable fundraising and networking device; their annual drag show at Mik-n-Mac's is a glittering spectacle of comedy, music and dance, and they have a wine tasting scheduled for later this fall at the Clark House.


Still, Wolter, who has also served on the Human Rights Commission, the Inland Northwest Pride Committee and Hands-Off Washington, is often surprised that NIAC is fresh news to some of the people he meets.


"As much talking as I do on the radio, on TV and in the newspapers, I'm still amazed at how many people I meet who still don't know about NIAC or know that we're in the community," he says. "So this year our big push is to draft a publicity strategy."


Part of that strategy involves letting the public know about new developments in AIDS testing or that there are a variety of ways to practice safe sex that don't involve the first thing most people think of.


"Life is too short to become the Condom Cop," says Wolter, smiling. "You've gotta have a sense of humor in this job. If you can't laugh in the face of death, you're not going to make it in this field for long.


"There are three things we can't deal with very well in this country," he adds. "One, sexuality. Two, disease. And three, death and dying. With HIV, you've got all three at once. As Americans, we often like to deny that we're people with bodies. One of the things we work on with our clients is how you treat yourself as a body person. That can go a long way in terms of understanding your risks and choosing health-promoting activities."


--Sheri Boggs





To contact NIAC, call: (208) 665-1448 or (866) 609-1774





Metropolitan Mortgage


Many businesses give away their goods, services and money. Major corporations around the world have foundations in place to give back to communities that provide their resources and house their employees. Of course, it doesn't hurt that such giving, in addition to increasing localized goodwill, offers some tax benefits.


But when a company is clearly local, and the focus of its giving is directed actively by a single guiding vision, it's hard not to conclude that genuine goodwill is behind the giving. In Spokane's case, Metropolitan Mortgage and Securities, and its President and CEO Paul Sandifur, have been behind a steadily increasing front of philanthropy that extends from Sandifur throughout the organization.


"When Mr. Sandifur first talked to me," explains Metropolitan Mortgage and Securities Manager of Community Relations Judith Gilmore, "he said 'I want us to enhance our giving program. I want us to do more, for more.' His concern -- the same that it has always been, but which has also grown in the last couple of years - is that we have an exorbitant number of people in this community who work for minimum wage. He's very concerned with the working poor and with those who have lost their jobs. The layoffs at Kaiser, Boeing and other places have created a great burden on the nonprofits that help families with need. Those very nonprofits are buckling at the knees with the needed assistance."


The burden, consequently, falls on generous individuals and corporations. But rather than being exclusively a vehicle for Sandifur's philanthropic ambitions, Metropolitan Mortgage and Securities encourages its employees to become philanthropists as well. That's why Gilmore, when discussing the company, refers to it as a "group of individuals."


"We have an employee match program," she says, explaining one of the company's giving programs that seeks to engage employees. "If an employee donates to a nonprofit organization, then the company matches that up to $250. So suddenly, a $250 donation becomes a $500 donation, which makes that person a major donor."


Among the few restrictions imposed by Metropolitan Mortgage and Securities on their giving is a denial of funds to religious organizations. However, the allowed recipients range across the spectrum of nonprofits throughout the region. "The swimming pools this summer," Gilmore begins without hesitation. "We've giving to the Logan Back-to-School Supplies Project. We've given to the Northwest Neighborhood Concerts Under the Pines. We've given to the Spokane Tribe for their oral history project. And the Lands Council...


"I knew that Met Mortgage was generous, but I've been stunned by the eight file drawers of organizations or projects that this company either gives to regularly, or have started giving to. From arts to swimming pools -- that encompasses a lot of generosity."


--Marty Demarest





Avista


If nonprofits and volunteer organizations in Spokane agree on one thing, it's that corporate dollars have gotten a lot harder to come by. But that doesn't mean that all corporations have thrown in the towel. Locally, Avista remains one of the most generous givers -- or as Merilee Roloff, CEO of Volunteers of America, puts it: "It's sad, but Avista is one of the usual suspects, along with Met Mortgage and Washington Trust Bank."


The utility company is doing what it can to keep up with demand.


"It varies how much we give, but last year Avista gave a total of $250,000, about $200,000 of which had to do with rate settlement," says Anne Marie Axworthy, director of community relations and public affairs at Avista. "Our customers contributed more than $300,000 to project Share, which is for people who have a hard time with paying their bills."


But because Avista's consumers are also feeling the pain of a slow economy, fewer have extra money to give when they pay the bill.


"Giving is down a little bit this year," says Axworthy. "But that's also because of the impact of the higher energy prices. Overall, I'd say giving has been fairly consistent."


About 700 organizations have benefited from more than $3 million given by Avista over the past five years -- and it's not all the money that goes to paying past-due power bills.


"We've been partners with the Spokane Symphony for many, many years, we sponsor the Super Pops concerts, and we've also given money to the MAC,' says Debbie Simock, Avista's community relations strategist. "Our largest giving is in the health and human services area, education and the arts."


Every year, 40 college students get $50,000 worth of Avista-funded scholarships.


"Those scholarships are managed through the higher education institutions," says Simock. "The program is called Minds in Motion, and the scholarships are awarded at nine higher education institutions within Avista's service area."


The dollar amounts don't include the countless hours Avista's employees give to reading programs at local schools and as volunteers on boards and panels.


"We focus very much on employee involvement in both United Way and many other organizations," says Simock. "We have about 70 employees who go out with Meals on Wheels on the lunch hour. Well, it's a long lunch hour -- but it's a terrific experience, and many of the food routes are right here in our neighborhood."


Last year, even though Avista won the 2001 Inland Northwest Philanthropy Award in its category, lately it has been under fire for rapidly raising energy costs over the past couple of years. Still, that doesn't mean corporate donations can go up at the same rate.


"Basically, the corporate giving budget is borne by the shareholders; it does not come from the rates or ratepayers, except for Project Share," says Avista spokesperson Catherine Markson. "Some people are concerned that here they are paying a higher bill and it all goes to philanthropy -- well, for a regulated utility like us, that simply is not permitted."


-- Pia K. Hansen





The Casa Program


When a case of child abuse or neglect comes to court, who represents the child? That was the question asked back in 1976, by Superior Court Judge David Soukup in Seattle. He worried that the legal system was not providing him with the thorough, accurate information he needed to decide such cases, so he created a program that trained community volunteers to study each case and report to the court on behalf of the children. The program -- Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA -- has been duplicated in jurisdictions across the country since then, receiving endorsement from the American Bar Association and recognition from Congress. In 2001, the CASA program passed the benchmark of service to more than one million children.


"CASA has been in Spokane County since 1979," says Susan Cairy, the county's Juvenile Court volunteer programs coordinator. "We have about 225 active volunteers, and we conduct training four times a year. Our next training begins on September 10."


The CASA process begins with a referral from Child Protective Services, Cairy explains. "We assign the case to a volunteer, who does an individual investigation. The volunteer will interview the child, the parent or parents, other relatives, the family physician, schoolteachers and so on. After reviewing the information, the CASA volunteer submits a written recommendation to the court."


When the case is heard in court, the CASA volunteer is there to represent the best interests of the child. "Once in court, CASA monitors the situation," Cairy says. "The volunteer checks in with teachers and doctors to see how the child is doing, or with counselors to see if parents are coming in for appointments as required."


The goal is to have each child in a permanent placement -- sometimes with their biological parent(s) and sometimes not -- within 12 to 18 months, she says, although that doesn't always happen. "But when you're talking about a 3-year-old, even that's way too long.


"This is one of the most formal, demanding volunteer roles in the community," Cairy says. "The written report to the court is critical. And often the volunteers have to testify on the stand in court, in front of people who don't always like what they're saying."


Nationwide, judges favor CASA recommendations in about 85 percent of cases, says Cairy. CASA volunteers play a critical role in the lives of vulnerable children.


--Ann M. Colford





For more information, call: 477-2469





Morningstar Boy's Ranch


In the shadow of Browne's Mountain in southeast Spokane, the Morning Star Boys' Ranch has been part of the region's social services network for more than 45 years now. The ranch, then called Flannery House, welcomed its first boy in January 1957, following donations by community leaders and the Catholic Diocese. Its mission, both then and now, is to offer a supportive, caring environment for boys (ages 10 to 17) coming out of troubled backgrounds -- a place where they can develop the skills and behaviors to help them succeed.


"We're working with those young people in need of an opportunity to change their direction in life," says Buck Rogers, development director. "We ask that they be invested in the program and in making a change."


Many of the boys at Morning Star have come out of abusive homes or situations where parental rights have been terminated. Referrals can come from private or public agencies, physicians or family members. Eighteen boys, most from the greater Spokane area, are in residence now; average residency at the ranch is 18 months.


Father Joseph Weitensteiner is the director at the ranch; he has served at the facility since its founding, Rogers says. "His vision and leadership is the reason why we've stayed here for 45 years. He loves the kids. And it's good to see a priest who loves kids in a good way."


Even with a staff of 28, Morning Star relies on volunteers who come in and work with the boys, tutoring in academics or activities, for instance. All volunteers who have contact with the residents must undergo a Washington State Patrol background check. Some open their homes to Morning Star boys over a weekend. "There are also opportunities for individual or corporate sponsorships for sports equipment or for kids to go to sports camps," Rogers says.


Rogers says Morning Star tries to instill structure and consistency, conditions that have been largely absent from these boys' lives. Days are scheduled around school -- at either the on-site transitional school or a District 81 school in the community -- and chores, with designated times for meals, study and recreation. Each boy's family or other "reuniting resource" is a critical part of his individualized treatment plan, because the ultimate goal is for the boy to return to a stable home -- or to be prepared for independent living when he reaches the age of 18.


"Learning how to get along with others is one of the most important things for the youngsters here," Rogers says. "Suddenly, they've got 17 brothers, and they have to figure out what the expectations are. You have some responsibility here."


--Ann M. Colford





To reach the Morning Star


Boys' Ranch, call: 448-1411.
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