By Polly Keary, Editor
When I interviewed Donna Rice for this week’s Featured Non-Profit story on Tabitha House in Sultan, Donna emphasized that I wasn’t to make a fuss over her, but rather Tabitha House and the work of the United Methodist Church in which it is located.
I fear she will be a little put out with me.
But my sentiments regarding Donna Rice were nicely expressed in the words of our photographer, Jim Scolman, who went to photograph Donna at Tabitha House.
“I met an angel in Sultan today,” Jim wrote in the email in which he sent the photo. “Donna Rice and what she does…WOW.”
I’ve known about her and the work she does for some time.
Sultan used to have a huge homeless population, before the county bought the land across the river from town and evicted a multitude of homeless inhabitants.
A lot of people were trying to figure out what to do about the homeless, and it was a fair question. The homeless are homeless largely because they, for whatever reason, don’t function well in society, and the presence of so many homeless people in Sultan’s small business district was emerging as an issue.
Donna Rice wasn’t worried about any of that, though. She was instead providing a truly astonishing number of services to the homeless, including cooking for them, providing needed goods like batteries and flashlights, and even doing their laundry.
She took some heat for it back then. Some thought she was enabling the homeless.
It didn’t stop her.
Donna was only concerned about what she could do to ease the difficult lives of the homeless, and that was all.
There are so many things I admire about that, I don’t know where to start.
I think I’ll start with the sheer pluck of the woman.
I remember that huge homeless encampment. I used to go there fairly regularly for this story or that. It was an intimidating place. I met a guy fresh out of prison who’d just stolen a truck and said a lot violent, racist things. I met people who were so crazy they would start screaming at the slightest thing. I met people who were drunk by 10 a.m., people who were so wary and paranoid they would follow you around just to see what you were doing.
I remember a filthy trailer in which people laughed over a recent drunken fight in which someone had gotten shot. I remember a lot of large, bearded men and drably-clad women existing in a strange, Mad Max world.
People used to get mad at me for going there by myself.
Yet Donna Rice, then about 70, saw a need there during a flood and started going there by herself to see what she could do.
I know quite well how difficult that community was to penetrate. People there didn’t talk to outsiders. They didn’t talk to Donna either, at first. But she kept after it.
In time, she got to know them not as victims or objects of charity, but as people. Very few people ever take the time or even have the desire to do that.
Donna isn’t a graduate of some school of social work either, not to knock those who are. Her compassion comes from some natural wellspring within. Donna no doubt has faults, all of us do, but her kindness is real.
She has no illusions about the people she serves. She knows about the alcoholism and drug abuse and other self-destructive behaviors in which many engage. But she looks deeper, at the causes, the mental illness, the war wounds, the bad home lives. She doesn’t judge. She just helps.
In writing this, I don’t mean to embarrass Donna; although no doubt I have, and for that I am sorry.
I mean instead to highlight an example to which I hope others might aspire. Others like myself.
It’s easy to blame and easy to dismiss, to talk about choices and accountability. It’s a lot more challenging to consider that it gets a lot harder to make the right choices when the circumstances under which one is making them are terrible.
Some people go to war and come back and heal. Others don’t, and we don’t know why. Some people come from abusive homes and grow up productive. But prisons are full of those who didn’t, and we don’t know how to intervene between elementary school and the crack house. Some people are simply more prone to addiction than others; most alcoholics believe they were born with the tendency, myself included, and it isn’t particularly logical or productive to judge the sick by the well.
But unlike me, who came to this point of view having lived through addiction and dysfunction in my youth, Donna just is naturally compassionate.
If this world had more Donnas, it quite simply would be a better, kinder place.
This holiday season, as everyone is supposed to consider things like charity and mercy, I hope her example inspires the rest of us to resist fear and judgment, and do what we can to ease the burden of another human being for a time.