By Chris Hendrickson, Monitor
Big heart, little city. The phrase was recently coined by Councilmember Kristina Blair during an impromptu effort at developing a slogan which aptly describes the City of Sultan.
Sultan can indeed boast a big heart, and this is largely due to the people who live there. People like Susie Hollenbeck. Well-known for her plucky and spirited sense of community, the long-time Sultan resident has volunteered countless hours solely dedicated to one thing: the betterment of her city. From Sultan’s Block Watch program to the yearly spring cleaning “City Wide Pride” event, Hollenbeck’s inclination to donate her time has become, for her, a way of life.
Now, members of the community are banding together to advocate for her; in response to Hollenbeck’s recent cancer diagnosis.
“Susie is the biggest, loudest and most enthusiastic cheerleader of the Sky Valley,” said Sultan resident and community volunteer Elizabeth Emmons. “Her can-do approach to life inspires those around her to step up to the plate to make our community better.”
Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Jeff Brand became acquainted with Hollenbeck during his four-year tenure as Sultan Chief of Police.
“Susie is an unsung hero that has not been recognized for all her efforts because they are not considered unusual for her,” said Lt. Brand.
Hollenbeck explained that the level of respect she holds for her surroundings stems back to her childhood; her mother frequently told her that she had an obligation to give back to the community. Hollenbeck feels that this contributed greatly to her strength and dedication.
In addition to being a founding member of the Block Watch program and helping to facilitate the “City Wide Pride” spring cleaning event, Hollenbeck has worked tirelessly protecting River Park, Osprey Park, Sportsman’s Park, the skate park and Main Street from litter and graffiti. She is a trained Citizen Emergency Response Team member, involved in the new Boomtown USA effort and recently assisted the city as they applied for Snohomish County grant money to develop a new trail system which will connect Osprey and River Parks.
She has been repeatedly commended for her efforts, being recognized with certificates of appreciation from the city for consecutive years.
And she is extremely well-known for her spunk.
Gold Bar resident and Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office Volunteer Ray Coleman worked with Hollenbeck recently when they both volunteered to assist with the Sultan School District’s evacuation drill. He couldn’t help but take notice of her trademark spunk, as Hollenbeck jokingly stepped on the side of Coleman’s shoe.
“I would like to nominate her for Random Acts of Orneriness,” said Coleman.
In addition to her gumption, one of Hollenbeck’s more notable characteristics has been her willingness to go head-to-head with local vandals and folks who litter on the streets and in parks; whether the culprits are adults or teenagers.
Lt. Brand recalled a time when the picnic table at the skate park became so dilapidated that it had to be removed by city staff. When Hollenbeck noticed that it was gone, she quietly stepped up to replace it, recognizing the need. Upon noticing that someone had carved something into the wood, Hollenbeck didn’t hesitate to confront the kids who frequent the skate park. She asked them to let the vandals know that if they continued to damage the table, it would be removed.
“The best way I can describe Susie Hollenbeck is that she is a pearl among many gems because she is always a little different, and like a pearl, always maturing,” said Brand. “She can be found at every city cleanup project, filling or placing sandbags, cleaning graffiti around the city or anything that may help improve Sultan’s ‘front porch.’”
Hollenbeck is not one to shy away from confrontation when it comes to keeping the city clean and safe. When Sultan was experiencing some issues with youth who were loitering near City Hall a few years ago, she was one of the few who stood up to them.
“At that point, if you wanted to walk past the bus stop into the library, you had to walk around those kids,” said Hollenbeck.
She recalled the way that residents would typically cross the street to avoid them.
But Hollenbeck was not willing to do that. She explained that she is simply not fundamentally capable of giving in to bullying types, particularly those who leave garbage on the ground and cause other problems within the community.
“Somebody has to be strong enough and secure enough in their beliefs to stand up to them,” said Hollenbeck.
The sentiment that ‘bad men win when good men do nothing’ is something that Hollenbeck lives by.
“It really is that simple,” said Hollenbeck.
She further shared that it really is all a part of her looking at the bigger picture and honoring the people who came before her; building this country and fighting for it, particularly those who have lost both life and limb while doing so.
“For us to take advantage of it is horrible,” said Hollenbeck. “That’s the underlying strength behind everything I do. How dare we take advantage of all that hard work and sweat?”
And to her, it’s about investing in the future, which is why she actively has recruited the youth to help in her organized citywide cleaning events, particularly the City Wide Pride spring clean. Last year, Republic Services donated $500 to the event which helped pay for custom t-shirts, flowers which were planted around the city, and food. Hollenbeck is planning next year’s event to coincide with Earth Day.
Hollenbeck’s pride for the valley comes from having lived there nearly all her life.
From the time she was two years old, Hollenbeck was raised on the Sultan Basin Road on an old homestead that was built in the late 1800s. She grew up fishing and swimming in Winters Lake and exploring the local rivers and forests. Her family raised a multitude of farm animals including horses, cows, chickens and pigs. Hollenbeck recalls that it was a wonderful way to experience childhood, and she has always appreciated the beauty of her surroundings.
“You can see the Olympics from end-to-end where I grew up,” said Hollenbeck.
Summers were spent on the back of her Shetland pony. She recalls spending time at the river; climbing on her pony and using the small horse as a diving platform. Once the pony had waded out into the river, Hollenbeck and her friends would leap off of the pony’s back, plummeting into the water.
Hollenbeck’s advocacy for the outdoors is apparent through her continuous work in the local parks, and is also reflected in her early career. She worked for five years with the U.S. Forest Service on a Helitack crew, and can recall being one of the early responders during the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.
“I was probably one of the first half-dozen who climbed in after it blew,” said Hollenbeck.
She still loves to explore the local forests and rivers, collecting interesting rocks and pieces of wood. She crafts different arrangements utilizing plants and other materials, forming unique pieces of living art. She will host a booth at this year’s Winterfest on Dec. 7 at Sultan High School and is even contemplating starting a business called Susie’s Sticks and Stones.
Hollenbeck joined with the Painter’s Union in 1984, was fully vested in 1988, and started her own painting company in 1992. She is also skilled at repairing and installing drywall. She has offered her professional services when it comes to cleaning up graffiti; donating paint along with her time.
She loves animals, and currently lives near downtown Sultan with her two cats, Chubba and Ms. Bitsey, and her two dogs, Lilly and Lulu. One of her goals for the future is to become a certified dog trainer.
Her dauntless approach to keeping the streets and parks of Sultan clean has been a tireless fight, a fight which will now shift gears as Hollenbeck battles for her health after a recent surgery and diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
Hollenbeck recalled sensing that something was off.
“I realized in the summer that something wasn’t quite right,” said Hollenbeck. “I kind of just knew that it wasn’t going to be good.”
That motivated her to work exceptionally hard, putting everything into her business while she still could, knowing that once her treatment began, she wouldn’t be able to continue working.
“I’m a P to the fifth kind of gal,” said Hollenbeck. “Proper prior planning prevents problems.”
Hollenbeck finished her last exterior painting job using heaters and fans to quicken the drying process. She completed the job on Sept. 27, and on Sept. 30 went in for surgery. It was during the surgery that biopsies were done. Those biopsies indicated cancer.
She is currently undergoing chemotherapy, a treatment course which will stretch for a total of 18 weeks. In addition to the chemotherapy drugs, Hollenbeck is on a steady regimen of anti-nausea medications in an effort to stay ahead of the debilitating side effects from the chemo.
Despite all, Hollenbeck steadily maintains it is always possible to find something positive, no matter what the situation.
“I don’t care what it is,” said Hollenbeck with a smile. “I’m thinner… I can eat chocolate.”
She laughingly showed off her manicured fingernails.
“Usually they’re all broken down to the quick,” said Hollenbeck.
Hollenbeck, with her physically demanding profession, is unable to work during her chemotherapy treatments. Sultan Mayor Carolyn Eslick has set up an account for donations at Coastal Community Bank, and any monetary contributions are helpful.
“Susie has been an inspiration to me,” said Mayor Eslick. “She is a perfect example of a caring community member.”
Hollenbeck greatly appreciates any and all donations which will go towards her medical bills, insurance deductibles and copays, medication costs, mortgage payments and other living costs. She has 15 weeks remaining in her regimen of chemotherapy, and any financial support would be helpful.
Most of all, she would like people to send good thoughts in her direction.
Hollenbeck has made a lasting and favorable impression with the Sky Valley community at large, say many in that community.
“Her efforts with City Wide Pride have benefited everybody who calls the Sky Valley home,” said Emmons. “Thanks to Susie’s efforts, along with a dedicated team of volunteers who share her passion for making the Sky Valley better than how they found it, Sultan is cleaner, safer and the bonds of camaraderie are stronger than ever.”
“This Sky Valley resident and local volunteer loves Susie Hollenbeck,” said Emmons.
Coastal Community Bank is located at 425 Main St. in Sultan. Donations can also be mailed to: Susie Hollenbeck Account, P.O. Box 1739, Sultan, WA 98294 or dropped off at the Visitor’s Center.