Beyond the Borders

For many reasons, thousands of people who live in or travel to Pierce County are either temporarily or permanently unable to transport themselves where they need to go. They may be too young or too old to drive, they may have a mental or physical disability that inhibits their ability to get around, they may live outside of the public transit service area, or the cost of transportation is unaffordable. Whatever the reason, Pierce County believes that transportation services accessible by all is critical for a healthy and independent lifestyle in Pierce County. Beyond the Borders (BTB) was created in 2003 to help close some of these transportation gaps in Pierce County.

When it first started, BTB served areas of Pierce County south of Graham and Spanaway such as Eatonville and Roy where there was no bus service. Later, when Pierce Transit’s service area was reduced, BTB expanded its service area to include areas of east Pierce County such as Sumner, Buckley and Orting, to assist people who found themselves without any public transportation options. Currently, BTB provides free rides and connections to Pierce Transit buses for eligible riders who need to travel to work, medical appointments or other essential errands. Eligible riders include seniors 65+, youth aged 12-17, people with disabilities, and people with low incomes.

There are two ways to get rides with BTB, but we will only focus on the first for this blog, which is to hop on one of two Connector bus routes. Riders in east Pierce County can catch the Sumner-Bonney Lake Connector, which makes five stops starting at the Sumner Sounder station and ending at the Walmart in Bonney Lake. The Connector stops at the Fred Meyer, Senior Center, and Gordon Family YMCA in Sumner, and runs every 45 minutes Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Sumner-Bonney Lake Connector route

Residents in south Pierce County can access the South Hill-Spanaway Connector, which makes four stops starting in South Hill, passing through Graham, and ending in Spanaway. This route also runs Monday through Friday, but starts at 6:45 a.m. at the Fred Meyer in South Hill and ends at 5:20 p.m. After leaving South Hill, the next stop is at Safeway in Graham. It travels south until it reaches the third stop at Fred Meyer on 224th and ends the route at the Walmart in Spanaway.

South Hill-Spanaway Connector route

I had the pleasure of riding the Connector on both routes and was able to meet the drivers and some riders. One rider, that I’ll call Mike, lives in Graham and has been taking the Connector for years. He lives about half a mile from the route but that is not a problem because if riders live within one mile on either side of the route, the Connector will pick them up or drop them off at their home.

“I take the connector to Walmart in Spanaway and back to South Hill for some errands or to go antiquing, which is my favorite hobby,” says Mike. “I appreciate the door-to-door service because I already have to walk far when I use the bus. He (the driver) could have left me at the corner when it’s raining but he is really nice and will take me to my house down the road.”

Mike lived in Tacoma years ago and had easy access to transportation. He spent some time at Western State Hospital before moving out to a group home in Graham. “I like it out here, but if it weren’t for the Connector, I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere.”

The Connector bus waiting for riders outside the Walmart in Spanaway.

During our route, we picked up a woman who was waiting on the side of the road, but not at a designated stop. She explained to me that she takes the Connector down the road to the Dollar Tree, which is next to one of the stops. “I try to save my food throughout the weekend, so I can get a ride to the grocery store on Monday. Without the Connector, it is a forty-minute walk to the store. I’m getting older and it isn’t as easy to do, so I am really thankful I can take this shuttle for free.”

If riders don’t live near a Connector bus stop they still have options! Riders can make a special transportation request for a pick up or drop off location near the route. Each route has about 25 unique riders who take an average of 250 trips per month!

The Connector buses can seat up to 12 people and can fit two wheelchairs. In order to ride the Connector, you must first register with Beyond the Borders by calling 253-476-4657 or 1-888-600-8043. Once registered, riders can take the Connector as often as they like. For special transportation requests from the route, BTB recommends making a reservation in advance to ensure the driver can accommodate your request.

If you want to see what it’s like to ride the Connector, check out the video below. Don’t live near a Connector route?  BTB may still be able to help!  For more information about Beyond the Borders and other transportation services visit us online.

Remember, difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations. Let us help you get there.







Everyone counts, no matter where they live

Next month, on January 25, hundreds of volunteers will hit the streets to participate in the annual Homeless Point-in-Time Count. The purpose of the Count is to collect information about how people became homeless, so we can improve programs and services to help them.

Volunteers are the backbone of this important day because we would not be able to gather this necessary information without their hard work, dedication, and compassion. Last year we had over 300 volunteers and this as of this writing, with 5 weeks left to sign up, we have 191 people registered to help on the day of the Count! Watch the video below to hear about the experiences of past volunteers.

The Homeless Point-in-Time Count is critical to the development of services and policies that will help us address homelessness, but none of it is possible without volunteers. One volunteer may come with friends from church who want to give back to those less fortunate in the community. Another person may want to volunteer because their brother lives in a shelter and they want to understand the system better. have different reasons for volunteering, but the one thing that all volunteers have in common is that they have good hearts and care about others.

So, what is the day of the Count like for volunteers?

Before you’re scheduled to begin your shift, you will meet up with your team at your agreed upon location to gather donations, make sure your app is working, and plan out your route. During the Count, volunteer teams fan out around the county to collect information from willing participants. Volunteers may join an outreach group, assist with donations, or help at one of the numerous events that day supported by our partnering agencies.

Are people willing to speak with volunteers? Asking a lot of questions feels invasive…

Walking up to people who we think may be experiencing homelessness and striking up a conversation can be a bit awkward, but that is why volunteers can be placed in a group with professionals. These professionals vary in their experiences and may work in the human services field, have lived experience, or have participated in the Count for the last five years. We find that most people we come across don’t mind the survey and are willing to speak to us, but others are not, and that is okay. At the very least, we offer them donations and information on local resources.

I want to help but, how big of a commitment is this for me?

Volunteers must register online and sign up for an in-person 2-hour training opportunity where you will learn about the Count, conversation starters for participants, how to use the survey app, and much more! When you register, you will choose a 4-hour shift time slot to volunteer as well as your preferences for location. Afterwards, you will receive an email with your meeting location and outreach assignment. Volunteers can help tremendously by taking just a few hours of their time to assist in the Count.

If I volunteer, how will this help improve the ‘homeless epidemic’ I keep hearing about?

The Point-in-Time Count provides us with valuable information every year. We use this information to determine if there is an increase in certain populations becoming homeless, or if there is an increase in need for certain services based on the cause of homelessness or disclosed disabilities, for example. One of the most important things the Count does is help us reach people who are not accessing services, so we can connect them to supportive networks in the system. The more we reach, the more likely they are to access services that can help end their crisis with homelessness. Additionally, the Count data educates elected officials, policy makers, and citizens by giving them a first-hand glimpse of what it is like to be homeless. Our hope is that the Count will provide data that drives program needs and helps decrease the number of people experiencing homelessness.

I have physical limitations and can’t walk around for 4 hours. Is there something else I can do?

Yes! There are ways everyone can help. Our partnering agencies have events during the day of the Point-in-Time Count where you can sit down indoors. Project Homeless Connect is an all-day event where you can hand out donations, conduct surveys at a table, or help with other tasks like directing traffic or connecting people to the right resources. We also are looking for volunteers to host donation drives! You can start one at your work or in your neighborhood. Donations can be dropped off through January 23rd, at any of our four locations.

We have learned so much through the Point-in-Time Count, but I will save that for another blog post when we go over the 2019 results! For now, check out the 2017 and 2018 Point-in-Time Count results to see a snapshot of what homelessness looks like in Pierce County.

To our volunteers, past and present, thank you for your time, commitment and service to the Point-in-Time Count. You are undoubtedly helping us improving the lives of Pierce County residents and for that, we are forever grateful.


Hope and healing in the Orting Valley

Last year, 11.4 million Americans aged 12 or older reported misusing opioids.

Drug addiction is an issue that affects everyone, even here at home. In Pierce County, from 2007 to 2017, the number of opioid-related deaths rose to 833. The Orting Valley, which includes Sumner, Puyallup, Bonney Lake, Buckley, and Eatonville, has witnessed an acute problem of addiction for a long time, but in 2017, after a series of fatal overdoses, the community realized it was time for change.

After a year of planning and preparation, recovery has finally come to communities in East Pierce County. The weekend before Thanksgiving, I was fortunate enough to be a part of the grand opening of the Recovery Café Orting Valley. The event kicked off with speakers whose support has been key to this project, then was followed by a ribbon-cutting ceremony and an open house tour with refreshments, food, love, and laughter.

Dennis Paschke, Executive Director of Recovery Cafe Orting Valley, and Killian Noe, Founder of Recovery Cafe, embrace in celebration of the ribbon cutting

Recovery Cafés are based on a model of building relationships, compassion and support. They help men and women who are traumatized by homelessness, addiction, and other mental health challenges. It is a refuge for hope and healing that started in Seattle and now Orting is the most recent addition. People who want to seek help from Recovery Café must become members and be clean and sober for at least 24 hours.

Killian Noe, Founder of Recovery Café, says that “one of the most important lifelines at the heart of this recovery café is the deep understanding that everyone that comes here will be a contributor to the healing of others.” Recovery cafés are different from traditional human service agencies because members don’t just come to receive services, they come to receive and give.

“All over the US, in every town and city, there are people that have fallen into holes. The hole of addiction, depression, other mental health challenges. The holes of loneliness, isolation. When several people overdosed, instead of being paralyzed by the pain, you allowed it to mobilize you. You leaned into the pain and crawled into the hole and through your broken hearts, this amazing, compassionate, loving, healing, response has been given.” -Killian Noe

The Fantastic Four! From left: Killian Noe, Dawn Paschke (Board Member), Dennis Paschke, and Cami Kasmerchak (Recovery Cafe Seattle Network Impact Coordinator)

And boy, are there ways to give back! Members can work in the community garden, engage in recovery circles, and help support others through training programs. At the event, I met so many people who were selflessly donating their time and energy to celebrate this milestone. That service mentality is a direct reflection of the Recovery Café model.

Dennis Paschke, the Executive Director of Recovery Café Orting Valley, has lived experience and began his own journey to recovery 15 years ago. He describes the aftermath of the pain felt by the Orting community after the string of fatal overdoes in 2017 as a transformation. “When our hearts were broken, we came together. There is this power of transformation that rises up within us and allows something like this to happen. Today is about opening doors of a place of unconditional love and acceptance and hospitality. And where people wrestling with addiction will find a place where they belong.”

Dennis Paschke and I inside the Recovery Cafe Orting Valley. The space includes an office, group room, and kitchen. It looks outstanding!

Across our state we are seeing the terrible effects of heroin and prescription narcotics on our families, friends and communities. I think we all know somebody that is affected by drug addiction. The statistics are staggering, but there are people out there who need our support and want help. It can take time to rise out of the darkness and overcome tragedy, and what the people in the Orting Valley have demonstrated through the opening of this café is nothing short of amazing.

“Today is a great day for everybody who has been stigmatized, judged, called ‘those people’ or not been given a place at the table. Today is a great day because in this valley we open the doors of a place that’s a refuge of healing and hope that undeniably has changed lives of many, many people.” – Dennis Paschke

Now, people in the area suffering from drug addiction will have resources that are close to home, without having to travel far for treatment. I am confident that the Recovery Café in Orting, though smaller in size and membership, will be as strong as its counterparts in Tacoma, Seattle and beyond. What I’ve found at other recovery cafes is that people do matter, and people are truly loved. I can see that.

The Recovery Cafe Orting Valley sits behind the United Methodist Church in Orting, WA.

Lives and families will be saved from the devastation of addiction because of this place. All human beings are precious, worthy of love and belonging, and deserve opportunities to fulfill their potential regardless of past trauma, mental or emotional anguish, addictive behaviors, and mistakes they’ve made. At recovery café, the community fosters stability, healing and recovery. Without ongoing support, the challenge to maintain stability, mental health, employment, relationships, housing, and breaking cycles of destruction is nearly impossible.

I look forward to better things to come.






Recovery Café Orting Valley is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. –  4:30 p.m. It is located at 113 Varner Avenue SE in Orting, behind the United Methodist Church. For more information, contact 360-208-8018.

Food for Thought

One in seven people in Washington state lacks access to food sufficient for a healthy and active lifestyle. In Pierce County, about 1.3 million visits are made to food pantries and meal sites every year. More than half of these visits to emergency food programs are on behalf of children and seniors.

The Pacific Northwest is known for its often rainy and wet weather, but did you know many of us are living in food deserts? A food desert is an area that has limited access to affordable and nutritious food, and typically has low-income residents. Food deserts lack grocery stores, farmers markets, and healthy food providers.

Without reliable transportation, heading to the store for your next meal is not easy. Maybe you can afford a car or money for the bus, but how far away is the store?  Sometimes the price of getting to a meal is more expensive than the meal itself. Unfortunately, these are the realities that many families in Pierce County face each day.

According to a Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department report, much like cities across the United States, the food landscape of Tacoma has dramatically changed over the past fifty years. People in neighborhoods that previously had multiple grocery stores, bakeries, taverns, drug stores, and meat markets owned by long-time community residents are now dependent on one grocery store or a commute to the nearest supermarket miles away.

The green areas show low-income areas where residents are more than 1 mile (urban) and 10 miles (rural) from the nearest supermarket.

Low-income communities often have the highest density of fast-food restaurants, the fewest high-quality grocery stores, the fewest safe physical activity opportunities, and the highest density of alcohol and tobacco merchants and advertising. Healthy eating and active living are the foundations to prevent obesity, but not everyone has the same opportunities for exercise and healthy food.

With the holidays approaching, Pierce County Human Services wanted to give back to the community with a food drive. The first week, staff collected over 248 cans of food. Enough to feed a family of 4 for 2 weeks. The second week we collected pet food, totaling 93 cans and 6 bags. Enough to feed 2 dogs and 10 cats for 3 weeks. During the third week, we collected 4 boxes of Kleenex and 124 rolls of paper towels and toilet paper. Enough paper products to last a family of 4 for two months. During the final month of October, we collected 77 items that included soup, pasta, cereal, baby food, peanut butter, and baking ingredients. In total, our team collected 459 pounds of food and necessities for families in the County.

I am very proud of the Human Services team for their compassion and kindness, but it started me thinking, what else can we be doing to make healthy food more accessible for our community? Who else is working to feed Pierce County? During our quest to donate as many items as possible, we came across WSU Pierce County Extension, a contractor with The Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) SNAP Program.

The Supplement Nutritional Assistance Program Education, or SNAP-Ed for short, provides community-based nutrition education for adults and families in fun and impactful ways. One of the workshops WSU Extension provides is called Eating Smart, Being Active, and it’s a 9-week series where participants prepare healthy meals, learn about nutrition, and how to shop smart.

Another workshop is, Plan, Shop, Save, Cook. During four lessons, families learn how to save time and money, while discovering ways to plan nutritious meals, and tips for stretching food dollars throughout the month! Participants receive incentives and other goodies such as a grocery bag, kitchen utensils, a magnetic shopping list, or a cookbook. Both workshops are designed for residents who are SNAP eligible, but do not necessarily have to be receiving food assistance benefits.

Graduates of SNAP-Ed free education series “Plan, Shop, Save, Cook”

SNAP-Ed targets anyone living below the federal poverty level, and offers programs for youth, families and adults. Youth programs encourage students and their families to eat more fruits and vegetables, whole grain foods and low-fat dairy and to balance food consumption with physical activity to maintain a healthy weight.

Adult series and single events are offered at a variety of community-based locations such as Food Banks and distribution sites, affordable or transitional housing sites, and at the WSU Extension Office in the Pierce County Human Services Soundview Building. They emphasize portion size and the importance of physical activity. The best part about these workshops? Classes are at no cost to participants!

Chuck runs a food cooking demonstration at a Nourish Food Bank
SNAP-Ed employee Mattie manages a station at St. Leo’s Food Connection with free samples, ingredients, and recipes for food bank shoppers.

SNAP-Ed often sends representatives to food banks for cooking demonstrations. They take common items found at food banks and create delicious meals that are easy to make and affordable. This not only helps shoppers broaden their culinary horizons and step outside their comfort zone by trying new foods, but it also helps foster a sense of community and belonging between shoppers and volunteers. Another way that SNAP-Ed helps reach people who need food assistance is by creating items in different languages, so more people can access food and communicate needs to volunteers.

SNAP-Ed is just one of the amazing programs that help reduce hunger and food insecurity in Pierce County. We know that chronic hunger and malnutrition prevents children from reaching their full potential, affecting their health, ability to learn in school, and future economic prosperity. A lack of nutritious food also makes seniors more susceptible to health issues. Pierce County Aging and Disability Resources is proud to offer nutrition and food resources for seniors, especially farmers market vouchers to low-income seniors each spring. (We gave out 2,130 in 2018!)

Visit SNAP-Ed online for recipes, activities for children, money-saving ideas, and time-saving tips. If you are living below the federal poverty line and want to see if you qualify for SNAP-Ed benefits, or are a business that would like to host a SNAP-Ed demonstration, contact the WSU Extension Pierce County SNAP-Ed Program Manager Linda Mathews, at 253-798-7154.

Find a food bank near you.

Want to learn more about food access in the United States? Check out the USDA Economic Research Service Atlas.


Let Us Help

John Adams passed the Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen in 1798, marking the first federal public health law. Over the next 200 plus years, many laws and much legislation would be passed cementing the government’s role in ensuring the health and safety of people in America. Since the 1950’s, Pierce County and its incorporated cities have continued to grow, through hard times and good times. As the Director of Human Services, I take great pride in the work that my department does every day to provide essential assistance to vulnerable people.

Our department is diverse in programs, and I often get asked about what we do and who we serve. For starters, there are over 50 programs that we manage, operate, or fund in Pierce County, so it isn’t easy to narrow down or generalize the good work we do! It is our mission to work hard to ensure all residents have equitable access to community-based services that respect each person’s unique experience. Most of our programs focus on low-income families, children, seniors, and disabled individuals, but we want to invest in all individuals and help communities thrive in every way imaginable.

Our biggest division in the Human Services Department is Aging and Disability Resources, or ADR, for short. We provide case management services and fund other agencies to assist with home care, health homes, transportation, medical, food services, and other programs. We also provide financial, health, and safety resources for family and kinship caregivers. The Aging and Disability Resource Center is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and provides anyone who calls with information about everything from education on fall prevention to how they can receive assistance with Medicaid applications.

Within ADR is our Developmental Disabilities (DD) division, which is small but mighty! We provide services to children aged birth to three with developmental delays and work closely with physicians and provider agencies to offer supervision and ensure all services are in accordance with federal and state laws. We also provide employment and day services for adults with developmental disabilities. Our School to Work program is for transition students in their last year of high school. If you read about Joel last month, then you know what wonderful work that team does to support young adults!

Next, Human Services is proud to offer home safety, energy assistance, and early childhood education through our Community Actions Programs. This division serves as the safety net for some of the most vulnerable residents by assisting with payments to heat providers and weatherizing homes, so people stay warm in the winter. Also, homeowners can apply for help with home repairs and we send out contractors to fix issues related to safety, such as electrical and plumbing modifications.

Also, we have two special needs transportation programs called Beyond the Borders and Mobility Management, that help residents across the county get to work, medical appointments, and run necessary errands. We receive Community Block Grants that are provided to us every year to expand economic opportunities to benefit low- and moderate-income areas. These funds are commonly spent on youth violence prevention and developing a homeless crisis response system across Pierce County. Our numbers show that our creativity with Coordinated Entry is working! In fact, we were just named as an Anchor Community by A Way Home Washington, an advocacy group dedicated to ending youth homelessness in Washington State by 2022.

Likewise, affordable housing is an important issue that we are working to resolve in many of our programs, but we are thankful for funding through the Community Development Corporation that allows us to improve economic development through loans. So far this year, 151 new affordable rental and ownership housing units were awarded! Once completed, these units will provide safe and affordable housing to seniors, veterans, disabled individuals, and homeless households and families. We offer low interest and zero interest loans to homeowners who need assistance with rehabilitation and replacement of substandard homes, as well as residents buying their first home! As of this writing our 2018 numbers show we helped thirteen homeowners complete major rehabilitation to their homes and helped eight residents become first time homeowners! Additionally, in partnership with the Pierce County Economic Development Department, we also provide loans to businesses that create jobs for low income workers.

Home purchased through the Pierce County Home Loan Program
Pierce County Councilman Doug Richardson and others celebrate the opening of Tallentire homes, a partner in our Home Loan program

Commitment to service is in our DNA, which is why we honor Veterans through our Veterans Assistance Program that provides support with emergency financial assistance to indigent veterans. Not only do we provide support for rent, food, utilities, medical, dental, and burial costs, but we also seek ways to improve services for veterans. In addition to financial support, we provide services in advocacy and counseling through our Alternatives to Violence project in the Pierce County Jail to incarcerated veterans.

While all the Human Services programs generally serve disabled or low-income residents, nothing is black and white. I encourage you to contact us if you have questions or need support in some way, because you never know how we may be able to assist you. For example, we do not provide behavioral health services directly, but we have relationships with other agencies (and even fund some of their programs!) who are able to help you find a doctor, receive a mental health evaluation, or locate the closest outpatient treatment program for you.

Early Childhood Education employees from the Orting location enjoy the 2018 Staff Appreciation lunch
Early Childhood Education employees head out for their summer break
Two Aging and Disability Resources employees put on a show at the 2017 Staff Appreciation lunch

The Human Services Department is large, but it matches the hearts of our dedicated and compassionate employees. We are currently hiring for many positions, so if you want to become part of the positive change we are making in the lives of thousands of residents, please join our team! My main purpose of writing this blog is to introduce you to the services offered in anticipating that you share this information, so we can help those who need it most.

Do you know a veteran or someone with special needs who needs transportation assistance getting to work? The Road to Independence offers free rides to and from work in NE Pierce County and South King County. Let us help.

Does your disabled adult child want to start a hobby or find a job that improves his or her independence? We administer employment and day services through providers that are consistent with the participants’ interests, skills, and goals. Let us help.

Are your neighbors at risk of becoming homeless and have a child turning four this winter? Contact one of our Early Childhood Education and Assistance Programs that help support children and families through education, community resources, development screenings, and free USDA meals. Let us help.

Do you know someone on the Key Peninsula who is having a difficult time traveling? The Mustard Seed Project provides door to door transportation services throughout the western-most parts of Pierce County. Let us help.

Are you worried about your elderly grandmother’s health because costly vegetables and healthier options are too expensive for her limited income? Contact the ADRC and ask for a farmers market voucher so she can eat healthy at no cost. Let us help.

To learn more about Human Services programs, visit our website. To see where we are headed over the next few years, view our strategic plan.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” – Mahatma Gandhi


Mental Illness Awareness Week

Growing up, he often acted with reckless disregard for structure and rules. When he was 30 years old, his family received a call from the ER informing them that he was in a psychosis and had been diagnosed with Bipolar 1 disorder. Over the next three years, he would be in and out of different hospitals over 20 times and incarcerated several times on petty crimes, usually property destruction and failing to make court dates.

Last year, in a desperate attempt to get him help, his family filed a petition with the court asking for involuntary commitment to treatment. The petition was granted, and he was ordered to take medication. Due to the nature of his illness, he was resistant to medication, which is very common in people with mental health conditions. To administer his treatment, he was placed in soft restraints, but he fought back and bit three of the healthcare workers. He was later charged with Assault 3 and brought into the jail for three weeks until he could be sent to Western State Hospital for a competency evaluation. He was offered a plea deal to reduce the charge, and the treatment petition was dismissed after he was released from jail. The same scenario happened again shortly after, perpetuating a vicious cycle that too many families endure.

This week, the second week of October, is National Mental Illness Awareness Week. We worked with friends at NAMI Pierce County to create a proclamation that was adopted by the County Council and the Executive this week.

NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the largest grassroots non-profit organization in the country. They support individuals and families whose lives have been touched by the challenges of mental illness.

The Pierce County Council and Executive declare October 7-13, 2018 as Mental Illness Awareness Week! NAMI Pierce County Board President, Cynthia Macklin (center), accepts the proclamation from Councilman Richardson.

We met with Cynthia Macklin, NAMI Pierce County Board President, to discuss her organizations efforts to help residents in the county. She is an attorney and mother of two adult children, one of whom has a mental health condition, which is why she became involved with NAMI. Advocacy, education, and reducing stigma are among the group’s core values. This year, NAMI is promoting their Cure Stigma campaign through awareness and education.

“We eliminate stigma by talking about mental health. Sixty plus years ago ‘cancer’ was a dirty word that people did not want to talk about. Now, to not seek help for cancer due to a concern about what people would think is unimaginable. Mental illness is a crisis that affects everyone and it’s important to talk about.” – Cynthia Macklin, NAMI Pierce County Board President

At NAMI, classes and support groups are available for free to anyone, regardless of membership. They have support groups for peers (people living with a mental illness), as well as family members and friends. Their 13-week course, Family to Family, is a 2-hour per week class that educates family members of people with mental illness on coping skills, what they should do, what they shouldn’t do, etc. Next week they are hosting an estate planning presentation, with a focus on special needs trusts.

NAMI’s website has resources for people in crisis, students, families, LGBTQ services, and teens. There is even a section dedicated to navigating the legal system, including a guide on how to support a family member who has been arrested.

The County has taken steps to address the need for more behavioral health support for residents. Last year, the Mobile Crisis Intervention Response TEAM (MCIRT) was created to collaborate with first responders to help high utilizer residents experiencing a crisis get the help they need without calling 9-1-1. In partnership with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department, the behavioral health co-responder program has designated mental health professionals who go out with officers and respond to calls that may be mental health-related.

Our Trueblood program diverts people experiencing mental health issues from jail and helps them safely integrate back into society, so they don’t have to spend time locked away, without treatment, where they do not belong. Most recently, the County Council approved a new Crisis Recovery Center in the Parkland-Spanaway area that will help stabilize residents experiencing a behavioral health crisis.

We look forward to our continued partnership with NAMI Pierce County and join them in raising awareness for mental illness and reducing the stigma surrounding it. If you have a mental health condition or are the family member or friend of someone living with one, reach out to NAMI for support. It is not easy, and we can’t do it alone. Things work better if you can take this journey together and support each other along the way.

“The best advice I would tell a family member or friend of someone with mental illness is to educate yourself, seek out support, and find people out there who can relate to what you’re going through. You are not alone.” – Cynthia Macklin

To the parent who feels ashamed, guilty, or fearful – it’s not your fault.

Mental illness is not caused by poor parenting or weakness. Just like any other major illness, it is not the person’s fault. It is caused by environmental and biological factors.

To the professional working downtown who turns the opposite direction when a person screaming about mind control walks towards them – do not be afraid.

People experiencing mental illness are no more likely to be violent than those who are not living with a mental illness. Only 3%-5% of violent acts can be attributed to people who have a mental illness. In fact, people with severe mental illness are 10x more likely to be a victim of violent crimes than the public.

To the person who was just released from the hospital for the fifth time this year and has no place to live – do not lose hope.

People with mental illness can get better. Treatment works. Innovations in medicine and therapy have made recovery a reality for people living with a mental health issue, even chronic conditions. While all symptoms may not be alleviated easily or at all, with the right recovery plan, people can live the productive and healthy lives they’ve always imagined.


One Smart Cookie

First jobs are seldom glitzy, glamorous or fun. But every career path must start somewhere. Whether you’re delivering papers or flipping burgers, it’s important to realize every first job is a chance to develop skills future employers will be seeking.

I remember the intimidation of my first interview, the electricity I felt receiving the job offer, and the fear I experienced when I walked through the doors for my first day. But what if you had a disability that prevented you from getting a job the traditional way?

Pierce County’s School to Work (STW) Program is designed for young adults with developmental disabilities who want to find paid employment before they transition out of school. For the school year 2017-2018, we had a total of 28 students in the program and by the end of the school year, 21 of them had jobs before graduation! One of these students, Joel Bumstead, is thriving in his new position as an Office Assistant at Planning the Next Steps, LLC, a business providing Community Guide and Community Engagement services to people with developmental disabilities.

Joel has a diagnosis of Autism, which can affect his communication and social interactions. While people experience Autism in a variety of ways, it often manifests into special skills and abilities. Joel has a photographic memory and enjoys tasks that are repetitive and structured, which positively impacts his work.

As an Office Assistant, Joel is responsible for transcribing client case notes from staff worksheets into readable documents, filing client paperwork, and maintaining client records. He also prepares summaries, paychecks, and mileage reports for staff meetings. Joel even recently began learning the billing process and is submitting services to Provider 1 for payment.

Joel enters data to help keep his boss organized and up to date with billing.

Joel is supported in his job by Ana Pavlovic, an Employment Consultant for Morningside, one of twelve organizations that contract with Pierce County to provide employment planning, training, and placement for people with disabilities. Before getting his current job, Joel and Ana tested out different work sites to learn about his skills and support needs. He did well at each site, but Ana knew right away that his incredible focus, attention to detail, and love for computers would make him perfect for an office job. With a target job identified, Joel and a job developer from Morningside began searching for employers who needed his skillset. After some exploration, Joel was hired by Krista Milhofer, owner of Planning the Next Steps, who was searching for an employee to help her in her office.

“When I needed to hire someone, I wanted to go through Morningside because I knew I would get a customized job match, a chance to see the candidates’ quality of work on the job prior to hire, a substantial tax credit through the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, and all Morningside employer services would be available to me free of charge.” – Krista Milhofer

Before hiring Joel, Krista was curious but cautiously optimistic. He was quiet and did not respond to many of her questions, but he did show an interest in the work following her specific instructions. She quickly discovered Joel’s potential and hired him in May. Since then, Joel has worked part-time and is continuing to increase his workload.

As his job coach, Ana assists Joel with initial training when he is learning a new task. This is rarely difficult because once you show Joel something, he can do it perfectly from that point on. Sometimes, reasonable accommodations are needed, but that is an easy fix.

When transcribing from handwritten notes, information is not always legible. When this happens, Joel highlights the words and puts the paper on a clipboard, which is reviewed by Krista at the end of the day. Krista then verifies the words, corrects them, and gives them back to Joel to finish. Another accommodation that helps Joel in his job is an alarm clock that he uses as a reminder to clock in and out.

Ana is Joel’s Job Coach and says he is incredibly hilarious! Not only does he have a great sense of humor, but he is so dedicated that he is able to return to his duties after being silly without missing a beat.

The transition from school to the workforce is a vital time in anyone’s life. The STW program helps young adults like Joel prepare for the world ahead by collaborating with families and schools to ensure a seamless transition into adulthood. Not only is it beneficial for students, but it also provides a critical service for businesses because the traditional hiring process can often be time consuming and expensive. Krista believes Joel is essential to the success of her company because he saves her time and money. With Joel submitting her billing, she has no need for an accountant, because he rarely makes an error. He is consistent, dependable, and always keeps her client reports up to date, which is something she was unable to do herself.

Krista recommends employers hire students from the STW program because it provides help at no cost, qualified job candidates, job coaches to help support the business owner as well as the employee, and an opportunity for someone with a disability.

Joel works part-time currently, but is hoping for more hours in the future. Although he is a man of few words, you can tell from his smile that he is enjoying himself and loves his job. When I asked him if he enjoyed his job, he smiled at me, and in a Cookie Monster (one of his favorite characters) voice he replied, “Yes!” In addition to helping her with billing and paperwork, Joel also provides comic relief in the office. According to the trio, there is never a dull moment!

“All people have the same needs. Respect, purpose, pride, and social interaction are all found at work. Having the opportunity to explore your potential is a fundamental piece of our culture. Making money also gives someone the ability to make choices about their lives and provides more options for their futures.” – Krista Milhofer

To be enrolled in the STW program, students must be turning 21 and in their last year of eligibility for school services, have an open case with the Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA), be enrolled and attending a Pierce County high school, and be eligible for services through the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. DDA customers over age 21 may also be eligible to access employment supports. For more information, contact your DDA case resource manager, or Sundus Ali with Pierce County at 253-798-4368.


Seeds of hope

In Washington, approximately 1 person dies by suicide every 8 hours. That is 3 people each day.

From the shores of the Pacific, through the beautiful Cascade mountains, across the rolling hills of the central valley, across the Palouse and up and down the landscape in every direction – it is an issue that affects us all.

In 2016, 38% of tenth graders in Pierce County reported that they were so sad or hopeless for two weeks that they stopped doing usual activities. In that same year, 11% of Pierce County youth aged 12-17 reported having one major depressive episode in the previous 12 months.

It was in the fall of 2010 when 17-year-old Jordan Binion died by suicide. Since then, his parents, Deborah and Willie, have dedicated their lives to helping others through legislative advocacy and mental health education. They discovered an evidence-based training for educators called the Mental Health and High School Curriculum and made it their mission to integrate these lessons into schools all over the state. In the last two years, over 75,000 kids in Pierce County have been educated using this curriculum and it is currently being taught in 106 districts across the state.

I could tell you about how this curriculum is designed to support teachers and improve students’ knowledge of mental health. And I could show you statistics about youth suicide rates and the prevalence of mental illness. Or I could go on and on about how necessary it is to talk about mental illness with our children, but nothing would be as impactful as hearing it from someone with lived experience. Here is Brittni’s story.

Throughout my school years, mental health was seldom talked about. Bullying was talked about frequently. If you saw something, say something. But mental health? It was taboo. Nobody wanted to be crazy so whatever feelings you had, you dealt with them alone. Teachers strayed away from such serious conversations because we were young and it was viewed as being too mature. This was a significant disadvantage as a young female dealing with mental illness and I often felt isolated.

Occasionally, I found others dealing with similar issues. We confided in each other, trading bracelets to hide our cuts and guarding bathroom doors as battles with bulimia raged on. With no adult help and no clue how to handle what we felt, we relied on each other until the unhealthiness of it all caught up to us and we ended our friendships. 

Now looking back, I can see the ways in which I failed others and the ways in which others failed me. In eighth grade our class was doing a game of getting to know each other. Everyone was saying fun facts about themselves, but the only thing I could think of when it came to be my turn was how much I wanted to die. “If you really knew me,” I said “You would know that every day I go home and I think about killing myself.” After I spoke these words, the teacher allowed me to use the restroom where I cried for twenty minutes before she came and got me. She never contacted my parents or talked with me about what I had said. After that day, it was never brought up again and six months later, I attempted suicide for the first time.

During high school, the pressure began building for me to write essays, read history books, and pass science and math classes. These were the most important things.

I remember being so overwhelmed, all the time.

I was losing sleep, staying up all hours of the night to finish projects for school all the while dealing with troubles at home. Every day at school, I was like a zombie, mindlessly walking from class to class, praying I wouldn’t get called on, hoping only to survive. I tried to seek out help at this time.

We were allowed at times to discuss difficult topics with teachers and peers, but none of the classes I took ever purposefully incorporated mental health education. I talked with guidance counselors, teachers, friends, but everyone seemed burdened with my problems like I was being dramatic or they didn’t have time. If any of my peers were struggling with their mental health, or felt like the schools were unsatisfactory in meeting their needs, I never knew about it. I think it’s a pretty common thing as a teenager to want to hide your problems, wanting to seem cool to your peers. Two years after my first suicide attempt, came my second.  

It wasn’t until I transferred schools and began attending Oakland, that things started to change for me. Oakland is an alternative school in Tacoma for students who are behind for one reason or another. The teachers at this school were so dedicated to not only getting kids back on track to graduate, but also to teach real and lasting life lessons. I was immersed in education about gang violence and statistics, teen pregnancies and its generational effects, as well as meaningful discussions about mental health.

My story with the Jordan Binion Project began in the spring of 2016 while I was attending Oakland. In a portable classroom filled with 20 juniors and seniors, Deborah and Willie Binion began the most influential and life changing presentation I had ever heard. They began by telling the story of their son, Jordan. They spoke of his beautiful life, the struggles he faced and his tragic death by suicide. They spoke about mental illness being a disease, like any other, and focused on reducing the stigma behind mental health. 

At the time of this presentation when I was just 17 years old, I had already been bounced around from doctor to doctor, a plethora of prescriptions and treatment plans that never seemed to work, two psychiatric hospital stays and two suicide attempts. I felt like my brain was a volleyball being hit back and forth with no care. I had always felt tremendous shame over my problems and guilty because I couldn’t fix myself. I was passively suicidal, with no hope of getting better, constantly living in fear of others finding out.

No one before had ever told me that my mental illness was not my fault. I remember staring up at them during the presentation with wide eyes, as the puzzle pieces in my head began putting themselves together. Mental illness isn’t my fault so I can talk about it like any other disease such as cancer or diabetes. I learned that if I can freely talk about it, I can get real, beneficial, lasting help. If I can get help, I can be happy. 

Deborah and Willie asked us questions, gave us answers and encouraged us to get help if we needed to. I’ll never forget the moment when Willie handed me a tee shirt after I raised my hand and announced that I was a survivor of suicide. Though Willie and Deborah were in my class for maybe an hour or so, I felt I learned more from them about mental health than any doctor or teacher I had ever seen.

It’s such a shame that mental health education is not required in every school nationwide. The teachers who wanted to help us with our mental health had to find ways to incorporate it into the lessons that were mandated, and most of the time it felt insufficient. Mental illness can occur in anyone. Suicide is an epidemic and we need adequate teaching and understanding to fight against it.

After learning of the Jordan Binion Project when Deborah and Willie spoke to my class, I felt inspired, understood and enlightened. In the subsequent years to follow, no matter how bad things got, I always remembered Jordan.

I remembered Jordan’s parents and how they turned their tragedy into a seed of hope, planting their story all around.

The Jordan Binion Project taught me how to persevere. They reduced the stigma of mental illness for me and helped me regain confidence and control over my situation. 

I can now proudly say that I am doing well. Mental illness is not something that ever goes away completely, but rather a disease to be managed. I am still learning and some days are better than others, but I now have the knowledge and support I need to stay in the game.

Since that presentation, I’ve graduated high school and traveled across the country to different places doing long-term volunteer work for those less fortunate than myself. I realize that my life is a gift, and not a mistake. Wherever I go and wear the Jordan Binion Project t-shirt, I am asked about the meaning behind it. I feel so thankful for the opportunity to share my experience and Jordan’s story. I will always gladly, and proudly, share about my journey with mental illness, just as I will always proudly display my Jordan Binion Project shirt.    


Brittni Robinette

Brittni Robinette, 2018


The Jordan Binion Project offers Mental Health and High School curriculum training to all teachers in Washington State for free. The training is so successful that educators from Florida, Kansas, Colorado, Michigan and Idaho have already reached out and requested the training so they can bring this necessary curriculum to their students.

This week is National Suicide Prevention week. I challenge you to reach out to someone in your community that may be having a difficult time. Suicide is preventable and we need to come together to raise awareness and fight for prevention. Help is out there. You are not alone.

Thank you Brittni, Deborah and Willie Binion, and the Jordan Binion Project for your work to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. You are changing the world.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255

Pierce County Crisis Line 1-800-576-7764

Crisis Text Line 741-741

Watch this very powerful video that illustrates how we never know what battles a person is fighting.


Gardening is always a fun thyme

Eight years ago, Jane Ostericher’s garden wasn’t thriving, so she asked her green-thumb friend for help with the problem. Within a matter of seconds, she was told frostbite was to blame for her decaying shrub. Impressed with the diagnosis, Jane asked her friend how she knew the answer so quickly. That was the first time she had ever heard about the Master Gardeners.

What started off as a small clinic at the Tacoma Mall in 1973 in response to increased demand for home gardening advice, quickly turned into an international phenomenon that is now found in every state in America. Each year, Master Gardener Programs provide hundreds of thousands of pounds of fresh produce to senior centers, food banks, and other communities in need. There are Master Gardeners in every county in Washington State, with over 400 volunteers residing with us locally.

Pierce County helps fund the Master Gardener program, part of Washington State University’s Extension. Extension works with residents, businesses, and organizations to build their capacity to find solutions for local agricultural issues and improve their quality of life. The Master Gardener program trains individuals in the science and art of gardening, and focuses on conserving and enhancing natural resources.

Summer interns at Sehmel Park in Gig Harbor

But you don’t need a biology degree to become a Master Gardener. Sometimes you just need a big heart. Since 2009, Pierce County Master Gardeners have supported the Tacoma Community College horticulture program at the Washington Correctional Center for Women by supporting faculty in educating inmates about sustainable gardening. With the program’s support, the women grew over 8,000 pounds of fresh produce that was served in the prison cafeteria.

Jane Ostericher



“It’s very rewarding to know that we can help provide healthy vegetables and fruits to those in need in our community.” – Jane Ostericher, Master Gardener since 2011

Master Gardeners provide a valuable public service by sharing sustainable gardening information through a variety of programs to people of all different skill levels. Last week, they wrapped up their summer gardening program for children with the Dr. Seuss Extravaganza, where themed costumes were encouraged. To engage youngsters, volunteers relate the fundamentals of gardening to favorite pastimes of children to create classes that are fun and informative. With fun topics that include fairies, gnomes, and tic tac toe gardening, it’s no wonder this summer program is popular with families in the South Sound.

Fairies & Gnomes Children’s Activity, June 2018

Even though many of their activities are kid-friendly, Master Gardeners say people of all ages can find something they enjoy. If you’re passionate about sustainability and helping the environment, attend a rain garden workshop this fall to learn how to design your own, which can effectively remove 90% of nutrients and chemicals in rainwater runoff. If you are looking for low-impact exercise, work in a demonstration garden to provide safe and consistent movement that burns calories and keeps you limber. If you enjoy problem solving, volunteer in the clinic where you can examine live samples, conduct research, and diagnose plant problems that are damaging residents’ gardens.

Jane has found her seven years as a Master Gardener very rewarding, and it has inspired her to give back. “A client visiting the park and garden last week told me that walking the trails and seeing our gardens have been very therapeutic for her son, who is recovering from serious illness and life stressors. I want to look into starting a program at the garden to help Veterans suffering from PTSD.”

Demonstration garden in Puyallup

To learn more about the program, attend an informational session, check out their Facebook page, or visit a demonstration garden near you to see (literally) the fruit of their labor. There are two learning tracks you can choose from, and training is held from January to March each year. You can apply online or in person, but applications are due no later than October 31st. There is a small fee associated with Master Gardener training, but there are funds available to financially assist those in need. If you are passionate about gardening, looking for a new hobby, or want to further your education, I encourage you to become a Master Gardener.


A Home for Maria


Maria* was already sitting up in bed before her alarm went off. Since she moved into her new home three days ago, she has been too excited to get a full night’s sleep. She turned off the alarm clock and sat on the edge of the bed with the morning sun peeking through the blinds, warming her cheeks. She swung her legs around giddily before getting out of bed to take a shower and get ready for the day. She still couldn’t believe all the space she had! Maria has visual challenges, and up until last week, was living in a home with an unsafe, inaccessible layout. She shook her head at the memory of eating dinner with her legs pressed up against the furniture, cramped in her tiny bedroom, unable to move around freely or comfortably. But she didn’t want to think about that anymore. Those days are long gone.

It was December 2016 when Vadis submitted a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) application to Pierce County Human Services requesting funds to purchase and renovate a home for low-income individuals with disabilities. Vadis, an employment agency with locations in six counties, specializes in providing opportunities for people with disabilities, such as housing and employment, to fulfill their economic and human potential. They know that to help people succeed, they need to look at the bigger picture, and safe, affordable housing was another way they could help. Since then, Vadis has purchased 10 single family homes and 5 duplexes in Pierce County, all for people with disabilities.

In the fall of 2017, they received news that their grant application was approved! They immediately started house hunting and within a few months, they closed on a home in East Pierce County. This is the 11th home in Pierce County that Vadis has acquired and rehabilitated, but it is special because it was sold below the asking price because the owners fell in love with their mission and wanted to give back to the community.

CDBG fund applications are reviewed and recommended for funding by the Citizen’s Advisory Board (CAB), a group of community members, elected officials, and volunteers who represent low and moderate-income residents of Pierce County. The board is responsible for selecting projects that help reduce the impact of poverty and homelessness by increasing access to affordable housing, providing services to the most vulnerable populations in our communities, and creating jobs through the expansion and retention of businesses.

Sherry Martin, a CAB member of two years, recalls Vadis’ grant application. “Everyone’s number one priority was housing and Vadis is a well-respected agency that does a lot for the community. They had a good proposal that served the population and needs of the community we stand for.”

Since April 2018, Vadis worked tirelessly to renovate the home, which was finally finished just one day before Maria moved in. Old carpet was replaced with special flooring to allow for easy maneuvering of a wheelchair, probing cane, or other assistive devices. The bathrooms were updated with wheelchair accessible fixtures, like a roll-in shower, to accommodate residents. A ramp was installed for safer entry to the front door. Weatherization updates were made for increased energy efficiency and lower maintenance costs. In addition to accessibility improvements, cosmetic changes like moisture-detecting fans and fresh paint on the inside and outside were completed to spruce up the house.

Bathroom with special features
Open, bright living room
Durable, concrete wheelchair ramp

Once the home was finished, Vadis partnered with a residential service provider that assists tenants with daily living activities such as cooking and cleaning. Vadis acts as the landlord and is responsible for maintenance, repairs, inspections, and yardwork. They charge rent based on the tenant’s income, and ensure they are left with money to spend on other important areas in their life, like social activities and a savings account. Oftentimes, people with disabilities are on fixed incomes and do not have spending money after necessary bills are paid. Vadis is determined to keep rental prices low so residents can enjoy life without the stress of living paycheck to paycheck. “Some of these residents have jobs and families, just like all of us, but the conditions we were seeing them live in were horrible. Everyone deserves to live in an affordable home where they feel safe, important, and part of the community,” says Mary Bushnell, Vice President of Program Services at Vadis, who was instrumental in completing this project. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”

The Citizen’s Advisory Board agrees that this home will benefit more people than just the residents.

“A home like this gives residents some independence, something to be proud of, and furthers their personal journey. But it also is positive for the community because it takes a house in a neighborhood, that may otherwise be broken, and makes it bright, happy, and cheerful again.” – Sherry Martin, CAB Member

The community couldn’t agree more! Neighbors came to the open house to see the finished product and were blown away by the improvements. One woman even offered to help decorate the home for free when she learned who its occupants would be.

These collaborations are essential to the mission of the Human Services Department of Pierce County. This project would not have been possible if it weren’t for every person involved. From the Vadis employees like Mary who wrote the grant and secured the funds, to the volunteer board members who evaluated and recommended the proposal, to the head of the HOA who approved the wheelchair ramp, to the owners who sold their home for less money, to the Community Services staff who made sure the construction invoices were accurate and paid on time – everyone played a crucial role in helping Maria and her future roommates live in a safe, affordable home.

As for Maria, she isn’t letting her visual challenges hold her back. Shortly after she moved in, with the help of her residential service provider, she had memorized the entire layout of her new home. The first day she returned from her job, she walked in the front door with the biggest smile on her face! She is happy and looking forward to this new chapter in her life.

If you want to be more involved in your community, the Citizen’s Advisory Board is a great way to learn about and be a part of programs that help low-income and disabled persons in Pierce County. Apply here, or if you want to learn more about Vadis’ mission and how you can help others like Maria, visit their website at







*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.