I grieve my father. I grieve his beloved country more.

My eighty-nine-year-old father died on January 5, five days after breaking his hip. He was scheduled for surgery January 3–delayed until his body cleared blood thinners—but worsening congestive heart failure declared itself early that morning. “I’ve had a good life,” Dad said, voice breaking after hearing that his body couldn’t tolerate surgery, that we’d keep him comfortable until his reunion with an army of family and friends in heaven.

My mom and I ordered his breakfast, our thoughts shifted from hoping he would make it through surgery without complications to anticipating the logistics of in-home hospice care. When the first of my siblings arrived, Dad told her, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

Inducted into the Butte Sports Hall of Fame in 2009 for his teenaged boxing prowess, we didn’t know whether those were fighting words or a reference to heaven. Fighting words, it turned out, when he mentioned his caregiver soon after: “Maria’s going to have a job.”

Dan Antonietti. A fighter until the end.
My dad, Dan Antonietti, wearing his favorite WW II Veteran cap.

The hospitalist switched him to oral morphine, which relieved Dad’s pain without the sedation of IV Dialudid. He had a glorious day: visiting with Mom and six of their eight children, talking and singing on the phone to grandchildren, and visiting with Maria.

A champion of veterans’ rights, he had planned to testify on their behalf twenty-three times at the Montana legislature this session. Now, instead of Mom being chauffeur and copilot as he navigated the Capitol halls with his walker, Dad dictated testimony from his hospital bed for her pinch-hitter appearance. He talked so fast, it took two of us to take notes.

“Madam Chair and all members of the State Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee:

For the record, my name is Catherine Antonietti, wife of Dan Antonietti, who is in the hospital and unable to attend this legislative session. He is a member of Post 1448 in Butte, Montana, which is a mile high and a mile deep and all the people are on the level.”

He grinned, then continued in his own words.

“I was the Legislative Chairman of the Veterans of Foreign Wars at the state and national levels.  I voted yes for all legislative bills for the last sixteen years and I continue to cast my vote for every veteran’s bill held in this legislature. I’m glad to see you all back. Thank you, Madam Chair. You’ve all been a big help and I am proud of all of you.”

I fought back tears at his tender words, thinking how proud I was of him. Laughter followed when he said he wanted a beer, then asked for ice cream instead. We told him he could have both. “Just ice cream,” he said. “The kind I like.”

Two sisters went on a grocery run, returning with a half-gallon of ‘Mocha Me Hoppy’ and beer—just in case. Dad had three servings of ice cream that afternoon and evening. He had a couple of bites the next morning, which turned out to be his final meal. He began a steady decline, transitioning from oral morphine to a continuous IV infusion by the time the hospice nurse and social worker arrived for a family consult the following morning.

They asked if we wanted to go to a conference room. Dad hadn’t talked or opened his eyes since the previous evening, but they reminded us hearing was the last to go. We said we wanted to stay.

The nurse listened to his heart and lungs, then said it might only be hours before he passed. She talked about end-of-life care and offered condolences. The social worker did too, lingering to take contact information for bereavement follow-up—offering thirteen months for any or all.

She suggested one-on-one goodbyes with Dad and, after she left, we exited the room so Mom could go first. All eight of us and one brother-in-law followed. Dad’s brow wrinkled in concentration. He didn’t open his eyes, but he moaned and moved his lips. I felt his words in my heart. He died peacefully eleven hours later.

As we reconvened the following morning to discuss funeral plans, Vice President Biden and Congress met to formally count electoral votes. That morning I read factual news, not fake, about fifty-plus ineligible Republican electors—ineligible because they didn’t live in their Congressional Districts, or because as elected officials, they were barred from being “dual office-holders.”

Days earlier, I had contacted numerous senators and representatives, urging them to object to electoral votes because of voter suppression, Russian interference, and because electors’ requests for a briefing on foreign interference had been denied. That morning, I called Montana’s three Members of Congress again, pressing for objections based on this new information.

I felt joyful driving to the mortuary. I imagined Dad and his fellow warriors working the Democratic Caucuses from above, particularly Senator Tester who had known and respected him for his veterans’ advocacy. I sang en route:

Papa Dan, you are the man, you’re up in heaven to take a stand to help change the history of our country. The country you loved and fought hard for, Donald Trump will be no more president-elect of this, our great country. Hallelujah, Hallelujah. Hallelujah, Hallelujah.

I knew my chorus of angels might be hypothetical, but I believed the Democrats would fight for justice. Constituents had urged objections for weeks. President Obama had imposed Russian sanctions. Fifty ineligible electors tipped the scale.

I checked my phone when we broke to look at caskets, certain that Colin Powell’s three electoral votes would multiply and he would be elected President. Premature I knew, because objections, debates, and subsequent votes would take time, but I checked again before we segued to our meeting at the cathedral.

An hour later, I read the devastating truth in a grocery store parking lot: not a single senator objected to the votes.

Dad emboldened me with the motto: “You can’t win if you don’t try.” Numbed by the Senate’s inertia, I didn’t cry until driving one hundred twenty miles the next day to pack for his funeral. Angry tears spilled down my cheeks. I cursed Democratic senators and told them about my dad.

He was a fighter. Not a quitter. His dad died when he was ten. Butte-tough, he was a fourteen-year-old featherweight champion. He would have excelled at other sports, too, but he had to work to help support his family.

He was a WW II Veteran. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1945, but was honorably discharged after breaking his back in a car accident. Determined to serve his country, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1946 and served in the post-war occupation in Japan.

He was a Blackfeet Nation Indian Chief. Honored for his role in securing programs and funding for the Blackfeet people, he was adopted into the tribe in 1972 and given the name A-pi-na-ko Si–pis-to: “Morning Owl.”

He liked Bernie Sanders. Days before he died, he said to me, “I wanted to vote for Bernie but you said that would be a vote for Trump so I voted for Hillary.” He was heartsick that Hillary won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College.

He loved his country, and was proud of his legacy. Seventeen grandchildren. Five great-grandchildren. He wanted to make their world a better place.

But not one of you Senators put up a fight.

That morning, I talked with a lifelong friend. She said one good thing about Dad’s death was that he would not have to see Trump get inaugurated. We shared our hope that her eighty-six-year-old dad wouldn’t either. After nine months of hospice care, he died peacefully four days later.

On January 21, she, her daughter, and I marched in the Women’s March on Montana, carrying our special angels in our hearts. We toasted them afterward with my mom and sister—reveling in memories of two proud Americans and their lives well lived.

Weeks since we said goodbye to my dad, I miss him. I am grateful, too. Grateful that during his graveside military honors when Mom was presented a medal and the words, “On behalf of the President of the United States . . . ,” Barack Obama was President. I am grateful Dad is not here to watch Trump unravel the country he loved, the country he fought for. Most of all, I am grateful he is pain free and resting in peace. Continue reading “I grieve my father. I grieve his beloved country more.” »

Children should not fear the President.

Children should not fear the President.

My heart ached on election night. I wanted to turn off the television after Trump was declared winner, but didn’t. I forced myself to stay up and listen to his speech. His demeanor and tone were better than I’d seen. He said: “I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be President for all Americans . . .” As a woman and a mother of a queer son I wanted truth in those words. All became my mantra as I tried to sleep.

Non-supporters did not share my forced optimism in subsequent days. Then Daniel Brezenoff started a petition asking the Electoral College to make Hillary Clinton president on December 19. I signed. Resignation shifted to hope. Her 2.7 million popular vote lead continues to climb.

Three days after the election I drove one hundred twenty miles to celebrate Veterans Day weekend with my parents. My dad, an eighty-nine-year-old WWII veteran, said, “I wanted to vote for Bernie, but you told me that would be a vote for Trump so I voted for Hillary.” He, Mom, and I shared our disbelief and concerns for our country. I told them about the petition—already three million signers by then—and shared my hope for a just outcome.

I awoke the next morning at three thirty. Unable to sleep, I got up at four and typed stream-of-consciousness ramblings. Then, awake for the day, I spent too many hours reading twitter hashtags: #StillWithHer and #NotMyPresident. I didn’t know then that that morning as my mind spun with ideas for action, a Peace Rally launched in downtown Missoula. A weekly event, I’ve since been to two, and I’ll march in the Missoula Solidarity Alliance Unity March on December 10. Please join me if you can.

My resolve to do something toughened after Steve Bannon was named Senior Adviser. After racist fliers peppered our community. I felt foolish that I’d tried to believe “I’ll be President for all Americans,” despite Trump’s hateful rhetoric and Mike Pence’s opposition to gay rights and same-sex marriage. I explored logistics and costs of blocking off streets or reserving a park for a rally to encourage electors to “flip the vote.” I planned a postcard event instead, facilitated by an offer to share space with Montana Book Festival’s TextCraft at Imagine Nation Brewing on December 4.

Concerned citizens gathered in solidarity after I announced the event at Missoula Rises and at a Peace Rally. While penning our cards, we learned of Standing Rock water protectors’ DAPL victory. Serendipity: affirmation of the power of voices as we exercised our own.

Writing postcards to electors at Imagine Nation Brewing.Book art and postcards and beer at Imagine Nation Brewing.Postcard champions at Imagine Nation Brewing.I’ve been told that hoping the electors will flip the vote is a pipe dream. I disagree. The day after we rallied, Texas elector Christopher Suprun wrote in a New York Times op-ed he would not be voting for Trump. And in the weeks since the election, a plethora of nonpartisan, non-ideological concerns have been raised about a Trump presidency.  

Twenty-nine voices. Five hundred postcards.

Twenty-seven voices. Words without pretense.I have faith that our electors will, like Christopher Suprun, do as they are tasked: vote with conscience to keep a demagogue and foreign influences out of the White House.Children should not fear the President.Children should not fear the President.

Thank You, Montana

Shelly & Karen. August 2016
Shelly & Karen. August 2016

Thank you, Montana, for passing I-182. Thank you for your compassion for my friend Shelly and for the thousands of other Montanans who lost their medical marijuana providers in August. Three days before the election, a woman complimented my “VOTE” button as we waited in line at the Roxy Theater concession counter. “Vote for medical marijuana,” she said.

“I already did,” I replied. “I wrote letters to the editor, too.”

She said she hoped she had read them.

“They were about my friend in hospice care,” I said. “She uses fentanyl patches, but she needs medical marijuana too.”

“My son’s on fentanyl,” she said. She told me he has Crohn’s Disease. He can eat when he uses marijuana but without it, food is a challenge.

“We already passed it,” her friend said. We expressed our collective frustration with the legislative rollback and shared our optimism that Montanans would vote to legalize medical marijuana. Again.

We did. So did Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota. California, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Maine voted to legalize recreational use for adults twenty-one and older. Though speculation reigns about how a Trump administration will impact the marijuana industry, I believe that legislation will be left up to the states. For Shelly, and for all who need medical marijuana, I don’t want to believe anything less.

We Need Medical Marijuana

My friend Shelly changes her fentanyl patches every two days. It used to be a single patch every three days. Now it’s two patches every other—for a combined 62.5 mcg.  Her story is written between the lines in a Washington Post article that states, “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned doctors in the spring against prescribing opioids with benzodiazepines, except for patients battling diseases such as cancer.” Like Shell.

Diagnosed one year ago with a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor, Shelly’s in a club she never asked to join. Cancer her entry ticket, she can fill her prescriptions without question. But when she uses morphine and Dilaudid and lorazepam for breakthrough pain and anxiety, “All I can do is sleep,” she says. “That’s not living.”

Her medical marijuana card used to offer an alternative. “Mentally, physically, spiritually, psychologically . . . with the pot, I am living.” Though Shell has been receiving in-home hospice care since spring, she’s been able to make memories with her family: taking road trips to Yellowstone National Park and to Colorado; going camping; canning peaches; and enjoying movie nights, family dinners, and an outing to MontanaFair.

Montana voters approved an initiative to legalize medical marijuana in 2004. In 2011, the Montana Legislature passed SB 423 to repeal the 2004 Montana Marijuana Act and replace it with new regulations. Appeals and court hearings followed, but ultimately the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the law to limit providers to only three patients would go into effect August 31, 2016—the day before Shelly’s fifty-ninth birthday.

Shelly & Karen August 2016
Shelly Hert and Karen Buley 2016

Unable to afford to stay in business, her providers were forced to close their doors. I met them in early August when I took Shell to the pot shop. I was impressed with their professionalism, knowledge, concern for Shelly, and array of products. Her providers applauded testing, taxation, and regulations, but were frustrated with Montana’s forthcoming legislation to limit access. Since 2004, registered medical marijuana Montanans have been treated for cancer, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, and more. But when the law changed on August 31, Shell and 11, 849 other registered cardholders lost their providers.

Pharmaceutical billionaire John Kapoor described his late wife’s cancer struggles in a recent Forbes article:  “I saw what she had to go through, and I can tell you, pain is such a misunderstood thing for cancer patients.” Following her death he developed Subsys, a fentanyl spray for under the tongue administration to provide rapid relief for breakthrough cancer pain.

But in 2014 the NYT described off-label Subsys use, higher sales rep commissions for selling higher doses, and company plans to seek approval for broader use. The article quoted Dr. Lewis S. Nelson, a medical toxicologist at the New York University School of Medicine: “If you’re waiting to die, you should die in comfort and dignity. It’s very different than if you’re attempting to have a functional life, because these drugs are relatively incompatible with having a functional life.”

Shell is receiving hospice care, but she is not waiting to die. She recently danced at her daughter’s wedding, and is looking forward to another family celebration in the coming days. She had stocked up on enough pot “to last through September” but now it’s October and she doesn’t have a provider.

I talked to her two days ago. She sounded rough. She asked if we could talk the following day; she had a call in to her hospice nurse to increase her fentanyl patches. She didn’t want to load up on morphine or Dilaudid—they exacerbate her opioid induced constipation (OIC), despite stool softeners and Milk of Magnesia. She’d been rationing her marijuana lozenges because she didn’t want to run out. Montanans voted in 2004 for more humane treatment.

We will get the opportunity again this November with I-182, a ballot initiative that would, among other things, repeal the three-patient limit. Eight other states will vote on marijuana initiatives this fall: three on medical marijuana; five on recreational use. Twenty-five states (including Montana), the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico have passed marijuana legislation.

A 2015 Gallup poll found that 58% of Americans support legal marijuana. A study by economist Darin F. Ullman reported that medical-related absenteeism declined after the legalization of medical marijuana, and, according to CBS News, “it estimated that the overall impact of the legal marijuana industry on the U.S. economy for 2016 would be as much as $17.2 billion.” Cannabis remains illegal under federal law, though the DEA acknowledges, “No death from overdose of marijuana has been reported.”

Not so for opioids. In 2014, there were more than 14,000 U. S. deaths involving prescription opioids. Articles pepper the news about our nation’s opioid epidemic and its devastating societal and economic effects, and Forbes tells us that even though the FDA approves Subsys solely for cancer patients, its continued off-label use has resulted in antikickback statute violations and an accidental death.

Shell called yesterday after sending this email:

Email from Shell 10/7/16

Shelly needs her fentanyl patches, but she also needs medical marijuana. If you live in a state that will be voting on a marijuana initiative this November, I urge you to please vote FOR legalization. Legalize. Regulate. Test. Tax. Enable Shelly, and others like her, to live the functional lives they deserve.

Detours

My appendix ruptured three hundred fifty miles from home. That was not the plan. The plan was to spend two nights with my dear friend Shelly. Catch up. Reminisce. Write her obituary. On the cusp of her fifty-ninth birthday, Shell’s receiving in-home hospice care for a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor.

Midnight before we said “goodnight,” we spent nine glorious hours looking at photo albums, talking, laughing, and crying. My pain started soon after. I searched “appendicitis”  and “acupressure abdominal pain” on my phone, grateful my pain was low and midline, not the right lower quadrant pain with rebound tenderness I remembered from my nursing school days and February of my boys’ eighth grade years—when appendicitis struck twice.

I worked the acupressure points on my shins and belly to no avail. The vomiting started at two-thirty. Shelly’s daughter Michelle drove me to an urgent care center that morning. “Food poisoning,” the doctor diagnosed. He said my pain wasn’t in the triangular area suspect for appendicitis, but if my symptoms got worse I could return for blood work and a scan. “How does that sound?” he asked.

“Sounds good,” I said.

My cousin Theresa picked me up. I waited in the car while she filled my prescription and bought ginger ale and sports drinks, then I took a dissolvable anti-nausea tablet en route to Shell’s to get my things. A hurried goodbye followed with a promise to return.

Seven hours later I was in the emergency room—at a different facility than that morning. Hours after Theresa delivered me to her home, her twenty-one-year-old son broke his pelvis in a motocross accident. He was in ER with his dad, awaiting admission. Theresa came home to pack an overnight bag and shuttle me to an ER. Made sense to go where she would be spending the night: between ICU, my room, and a waiting room as it turned out.

Ruptured appendix” was the diagnosis twenty-two hours after my pain began. I asked the surgeon if she thought it ruptured when I vomited in the ER waiting room and my pain shot from 7 to 10. To 15, had that been an option on the pain scale. She said appendixes often rupture at the onset in adults. Said too that adults’ pain can start midline and then migrate to the right. My pain was low, not around the navel like I’d read online. She said she’d try to remove my appendix laparoscopically but might have to open me up. I said I hoped she wouldn’t have to.

She didn’t. Rich bused over and drove me home thirty-seven hours after surgery. My drain came out two days later. That night I was again an ER admit, this time with vomiting, chills, and fever. “High-grade bowel obstruction and two pelvic abscesses” were my diagnoses: a ticket to a nasogastric tube, a laparotomy, and a weeklong hospital stay. Four times in five days I had to present my insurance card, grateful at each point for the Affordable Care Act and our insurance plan through Montana’s health insurance exchange.

Sunrise from St. Patrick Hospital room 513. May 2016
Sunrise from St. Patrick Hospital room 513
Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel from hospital window
Room with a view: Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel from 513

Would my outcome have been different had the urgent care doctor ordered blood work and a scan? Maybe. Had the first surgeon opened me up? Perhaps. “Probably” says my nurse friend Marj. In hindsight, both might have been better options but at the time, I was relieved by each assessment. Throughout my two hospitalizations and recovery periods, thoughts of Shelly—her courage, strength, and grace—put my journey into perspective. My surgeries were detours—the saddest part being I didn’t get to say “goodbye and good luck” to graduating seniors—but they paled compared to Shelly’s pancreatic cancer. To Matt’s broken pelvis. He’s recovering well from trauma surgery, but the abrupt ending to his motocross career was hard.

I know life is unpredictable. And every day’s a gift. So I changed my oil, filled my gas tank, and took another road trip. Shell and I had some writing to do.

Shelly & Karen. August 2016
Shelly & Karen. August 2016

Missoula : Much to Celebrate.

I was born in Missoula but grew up saying I was from Butte. Birthplace of my parents and older brother, we moved to Butte when I was eight. Roots ran deep. We moved into Mom’s cousin Eleanor’s home, newly vacant following Eleanor’s marriage and relocation to Oregon. We lived blocks from Nana, an aunt, uncle, and cousins. Extended family peppered the city and, on the cusp of third grade, it didn’t take long to embrace Butte as my own.

I’ve been back in Missoula nearly thirty-eight years. The hospital where I took my first breath became the hospital where, as a new nurse, I had to call a wife to tell her that her husband had taken his last. My memory bank overflows with this and other Missoula memories—those forged in my early years and newer ones from 1978 and beyond.

Jon Krakauer’s Missoula and a subsequent Montana Supreme Court hearing thrust the Garden City into the national spotlight. It’s time to give shout-outs to recent Missoula news.

  • Noting our “rugged outdoorsy spirit,” Thrillist named Missoula one of “The Most Hippie Towns In America (That Aren’t Berkeley Or Boulder).” Though I neither drive a Subaru Outback nor own a Labrador retriever, this designation makes me proud.
  • Big Dipper Ice Cream is a “Best Ice Cream Parlor” nominee for USA Today’s 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards. Started in the back of a brewery more than twenty years ago, what’s not to love? Currently number 2 on the leaderboard, you can vote daily here. (Voting ends May 23rd at 10:00 a.m. MST.)
  • In utero blood transfusions—possibly the only successful case in the United States to date—resulted in an early Mother’s Day gift for a Helena mom May 4th. According to Dr. Bardett Fausett, “In little old Missoula, Montana, we’re doing world-class fetal therapy.”
  • Missoula is preparing for another world-class event, too. Our tenth International Choral Festival will welcome thirteen choirs spanning four continents, July 13th-16th. Last festival, Rich and I had the privilege of hosting three lovely Taiwanese singers who still call me “Mom.”

 

Taiwanese singers Rainbow, Amy, & Tiffany at Missoula People's Market 2013.
Rainbow, Amy, & Tiffany at Missoula’s People Market

Imagination Library

I sent A Shout-out to Books, Libraries, and Dolly Parton to Hellgate High School staff fourteen months ago. Since then, I’ve talked with fathers, mothers, and a grandmother who subsequently registered their children and grandchildren in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Their smiles and enthusiasm were heartwarming and made me wish I’d been able to offer Imagination Library to my Lamaze students years ago.

At times I carted board books and picture books to class, one for each student to peruse as I pitched our public library and its special children’s offerings. I hoped those efforts resulted in some library visits, not only because of my lifelong love of reading and libraries, but because one of my parenting highlights involved my lap, two boys, and good books, which segued to sitting on the couch, bookended by Eric and Colin reading “a page and a page.”

Bedtime reading with Colin and Eric. 1992.
Bedtime reading with Colin and Eric. 1992.

My days and nights of Lamaze classes, OB nursing, and read-alouds are long behind me. I miss the magic of birth, but I love the magic of books. Last week a teacher shared a conversation she’d had with her four-year-old grandson about a “chapter book” he’d recently finished, and about his pride at listening to longer books. We talked about Imagination Library, which prompted me to take another look at its website. Two days ago, the number of U.S. children (birth-age five) registered was 900,712. Today, that number has morphed to 939,462. Beautiful. I hope stories and books continue to thrill those kiddos into high school and beyond.

A Shout-out to Books, Libraries, and Dolly Parton

More than two years have passed since I left hospital nursing. The words I penned in my farewell note to my obstetrics colleagues, some of whom I’d worked alongside for nearly twenty-two years, were bittersweet. I’m replacing the magic of birth with the magic of books.

Since then, I haven’t looked back. I now have the pleasure of working with two exceptional teacher-librarians at Hellgate High School.

Teacher-librarian Julie Burckhard assists Evan with a scan
Teacher-librarian Julie Burckhard assists Evan with a scan
English teacher Jean Croxton collaborates with teacher-librarian Shaun Gant.
English teacher Jean Croxton collaborates with teacher-librarian Shaun Gant

Daily, I’m touched by interactions with students and staff. Students’ impassioned “you have to read this!” recommendations have introduced me to books I would not have chosen on my own. I’ve had occasion to suggest books as well, not only the gut-wrenching, realistic fiction I gravitate toward, but other genres too. Along the way, some students have confided heartbreaking experiences of their own.

Others have shared their interests and aspirations. Months ago I asked a student her last name in order to loan her a book. I’d remembered her first name, but had to clear out some of the nursing stuff in my memory bank to make room for more names, I explained.

“You were a nurse?” she said, not waiting for a response. “Was it worth it? I want to be a nurse.”

“It was.” We chatted about nursing as we walked to the stacks, to a collection of stories by nurses.

Hellgate High School stacks
Hellgate High School stacks
Nurses on the Run: Why They Come, Why They Stay
Nurses on the Run: Why They Come, Why They Stay

Flipping through the pages of my book she said, “I’ll have to read this,” then told me she’d read it later. As we returned to the front, she said again, “I want to be a nurse. I want to do something important.”

I told her that was great, that we need more nurses. I told her I’d been at hundreds of births, which had been important, “but sharing books is important, too.”

She shot me a quizzical look, unconvinced.

I’ve seen her several times since, and she’s borrowed a number of books. She hasn’t read my nursing book yet, but I hope she will. And if she does choose to become a nurse, I know she’ll be an asset to the profession.

She, and others, continue to affirm my conviction that libraries and books are two of our most precious resources. Thanks to United Way of Missoula  County and Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, the youngest among us—from birth to age five—may now begin building libraries of their own.

“Dolly grew up in abject poverty in Tennessee, as many of you know, but she always believed the world of books opened up life for her.” United Way of Missoula County CEO Susan Hay Patrick

Dolly Parton is a believer. I am too. We know that magic happens. In books. In libraries. And in life.

An Evening at ROOTS Young Adult Shelter

During my recent visit to Seattle, I had the privilege of volunteering at ROOTS (Rising Out Of The Shadows) Young Adult Shelter. Its mission statement reads: ROOTS provides shelter and other essential services to homeless young adults. We build community, advocate for social justice, and foster dignity among low-income people.

ROOTS provides a safe place for up to forty-five young adults, ages eighteen to twenty-five, 365 nights a year. The night I volunteered, there wasn’t enough space to accommodate all who sought shelter. According to ROOTS’ website, this has become a more common occurrence. “These young people are spiraling out of the foster care system and onto the streets, fleeing abusive homes and failing to find work opportunities to survive in this tough economic climate.”

Those who weren’t lottoed in that night were given a plate of food, a blanket, a bus ticket, and a referral to another shelter if space was available. Of the guests in shelter, their resilience and unfulfilled potential were palpable. Some were students. Others were employed. But none had stable homes.

I helped two other volunteers prepare dinner. Though it was their second night at shelter, it was their first night on kitchen duty. We prepared a “feast” using leftovers, salad, fruit, baked goods, and four packages of egg noodles which we added to gorgonzola cheese sauce we scored from the refrigerator.

While we were preparing the meal, some folks carried in leftovers from a group gathering. Since we had plenty of food, we dated their donations and put them in the refrigerator, where they were sure to be a welcome discovery for the dinner crew the following night.

In addition to the above, several things struck me about my evening at ROOTS.

  • The dedication of staff and volunteers.
  • Preferred gender pronouns on staff and volunteers’ nametags.
  • An on-site resource specialist.
  • Donated clothing and books.
  • A sign which said that you could not use on-site, but if you arrived with dirty needles, they could be disposed of safely.
  • The smooth transition of the room as guests helped arrange mats and bins.
  • Guest access to computers, laundry facilities, showers and lockers.
  • The camaraderie between volunteers and guests.
  • The politeness and appreciativeness of the guests.
  • The opportunity for guests to earn locker privileges by volunteering in shelter.
  • The serenity of the room and its forty-five guests after lights out.

Our opening meeting before guests arrived and our debriefing after lights out were impressive. I was moved by the compassion and commitment of the volunteers, several of whom were in the age group of the guests.

During our debriefing, we were given the opportunity to share concerns, warnings given and an evening highlight. No one had warnings or concerns, but we all had highlights. One volunteer, whom we learned in our opening meeting was there for the first time, was enthusiastic about her desire to return. Others were regulars, evident by nods of recognition as they shared highlights about familiar guests.

When it was my turn, I shared three highlights: being part of a team headed by my son Eric, the evening’s Program Coordinator; seeing the welcoming, safe, inclusive place I’d heard so much about; and having guests help in the kitchen and in the dish room.

I didn’t share one huge highlight though, afraid tears would stifle my words. Working with my kitchen companions, and peripherally with the other volunteers, was deeply moving. To witness their kindness, compassion, dedication and connectedness with the guests was an affirmation of the goodness in our world. I wanted to tell them that they’re making our world a better place. I wanted to say that being in their presence made my heart sing, but I knew I would choke on my words.

I was touched by the guests as well. Through my observations and brief interactions with some of them, I felt so much unfulfilled potential. Two poignant memories stand out. As I was preparing a burrito for a guest, another awaiting his dinner asked, “How’s your night going?” I told him it was going well and asked how his was. “Pretty good,” he said. “That’s what we always say. Pretty good,” he repeated, with a hint of a smile.

What resilience.

Later, Eric had just given me a quick introduction to the dish room and sterilizer when a guest arrived and donned an apron. Wordlessly he turned his back to me and held out his apron strings for me to tie. Eric asked if he wanted help with the dishes but the guest said no, so I went back into the kitchen to collect our serving dishes.

After adding them to the overflowing counter, I thanked our helper for tackling the mountain of dishes. He said he’d done “twenty times that many” and told me he used to work in a restaurant. When I asked where, he hesitated. I’d wondered then if, in my attempt at small talk, I’d overstepped my bounds. He allayed my fear seconds later when he said in a soft voice, “Colorado.”

What a tender moment to be gifted with his trust.

Thank you, ROOTS, for the important work you do. Thank you for providing a safe, welcoming and inclusive place and for being a stepping stone as you raise young adults out of the shadows.