2nd Acts // Local Seniors Finding New Beginnings

By Micki Kent

For many Bainbridge seniors, their retirements are hardly retiring. From helping schools in Ometepe, Nicaragua, establish libraries to spending hours in hands-on combat against noxious weeds all over the island, older (not old) folks on Bainbridge are making the most of their golden years. There’s no dearth of ways to stay mentally and physically engaged, whether it’s leading tours for groups interested in environmental issues or lending expert assistance to Senior Center members who want to write their life stories. Some retirees utilize expertise from previous careers in their new pursuits, while others choose to dive in to something new. Whatever their choice, Bainbridge seniors are contributing valuable experience and time to the community.

Bringing More Than Books
Our island has been in sisterhood with Ometepe since 1986, and student groups and other volunteers have regularly traveled there to staff service projects and participate in cultural exchange. In February 2010, two retired librarians and a sociology professor were part of the first Library Committee delegation from BOSIA (Bainbridge Ometepe Sister Islands Association) to travel to the Nicaraguan island to assist school personnel in establishing school libraries. Dallas Young, former director of the Monterey County, Calif., free library system; Helen Dunbar, former head of branches for the Alameda County, Calif., library system; and Betty Petras, who recently retired from teaching at the University of Puget Sound, are recruiting others to join them on a return visit in February 2014.

Young, who took over the Library Committee with co-chair Susan Schaffer in 2003, said she was inspired by BOSIA founder Kim Esterberg, who started the committee in 1998 after learning that nearly all the Ometepe schools had just one book per school—and that was each teacher’s textbook. School personnel had expressed the need for books for the students, and this became the goal of the Library Committee. By providing $200 each year per school for books and library building materials, the committee has now established libraries in 24 of the 39 schools, 11 staffed by librarians (teachers assist with books in the others).

Among many aspects that made the experience so rewarding for the Bainbridge volunteers was the “code of cooperation” inherent in the BOSIA relationship of mutual respect, Petras said. While the volunteers provided ideas and materials for establishing libraries, Ometepe school personnel made workshop presentations to their peers. “The best way to make sure it will continue and thrive is for people there to take charge of their own project,” Petras observed, crediting co-chairs Young and Shaffer’s spirit of inclusiveness for much of the delegation’s success.

Weeding the Way
After moving to Bainbridge with her husband in 1998 and taking three years to remove invasive ivy from their property, Jeannette Franks initiated the Weed Warriors, volunteers who attack plants that invade parks, schoolyards, Land Trust easements and other public property.

Beginning with 10 recruits in 2001, the Warriors’ roster now numbers 200. Members come armed with everything from scythes and handsaws to loppers, digging tools and flame weeders to rout unwanted plants. About 40 worked in blazing heat last July 5th to ready the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial for a visit by more than 100 members of the Japanese American National Museum Conference. Another hardy group turned out on a recent drizzly day at Waterfront Park, where they eliminated not only unwanted plants but also dense underbrush, opening up vistas for water views throughout the park.

“There is evidence that people who volunteer live longer and are healthier,” said Franks, who is an affiliate associate professor at the University of Washington School of Social Work and taught a class on aging in the Department of Family Medicine there for 14 years. She is a consultant on exercise and health to Suquamish tribal elders and writes an “Aging Well” column for the online Inside Bainbridge. Franks also published a definitive guide to assisted living, “Washington Retirement Options.”

Franks said she was able to grow the Weed Warriors significantly with the help of Sustainable Bainbridge, a nonprofit founded by Sallie Maron in 2006 that works in conjunction with the Bainbridge Island Land Trust and the Bainbridge Island Parks and Recreation Department on environmental projects. Maron, an islander since 1978 and a former small business owner, has a long history with Weed Warriors. Having also served as president of Sustainable Bainbridge for three years, she said, “The community work I do now reflects long-term interests that have found a place to surface.” Her commitment is based on a belief in “the power of individuals to come together and create a community that benefits everyone.”

Frank Stowell, former director of a nonprofit organization specializing in aptitude testing and research, said he has drawn on his interpersonal communication skills, as well as his experience in project strategy, public speaking and other aspects of his professional work to complement the very different direction his volunteer work has taken. After becoming involved with saving the Blakely Harbor property from a massive development plan, Stowell helped raise funds to acquire Blakely Park and Pritchard Park. In describing that outcome, he said, “At one end there’s an evocative and moving Japanese American memorial commemorating the restoration of the human spirit, and at the other end the continuing effort for a solution to heal the land at the Wycoff Superfund site.” He continues to devote his time to farming-related, open space and environmental issues, including hands-on work with the Weed Warriors.

Why does he volunteer? “One of the reasons we moved here 30 years ago,” Stowell explained, “was to experience living on an island where everyone seemed to understand the importance of working together to preserve the extraordinary beauty of the environment we live in, not only for our own family, but for future generations. I can’t begin to describe the pride and pleasure I felt taking our four-year-old grandson to Blakely Harbor and telling him stories of the old mill and how the park was created, as we watched an osprey sail overhead.”

In Their Nature
After moving to Bainbridge full time in 2007, Ginger Thrash didn’t take long to become a docent at IslandWood, a unique 255-acre outdoor learning center designed to provide exceptional learning experiences and inspire life-long environmental and community stewardship.

She was later joined by husband Jim Thrash to lead tours of local and international visitors while pursuing their mutual interest in environmental stewardship and outdoor activity. Ginger draws on her teaching background to impart information and build understanding about IslandWood’s award-winning environmental design, which includes elements that reflect Puget Sound geology, and features culturally relevant elements like the Salish tribal-designed longhouse, not to mention the five miles of hiking trails that follow old logging roads to the long-gone Blakely Lumber Mill and Hall Brothers Shipyard. Jim says his career in business development, engineering and construction has helped him ascertain what people want to learn and tailor tours for special-interest groups.

Most enjoyable for Ginger is the opportunity to share her love of teaching and the outdoors with interesting visitors such as a recent Earth Corps group that included a young man and woman from Siberia who came to study invasive species. For Jim, leading groups up 190 steps to the forest canopy lookout tower for a unique 130-foot aerial view of the forest is most fun. He also enjoys such instructive activities as having docents join elementary students to take sediment samples from Mac’s Pond, with both groups then comparing their results.

For Joyce Rudolph, a still photographer on film sets around the world for 40 years until her retirement in 2011, volunteering at IslandWood encompasses many things she cares about: helping people learn about the environment and sustainable architecture while fulfilling her need to be outdoors. Joyce especially enjoys “making connections with people from all over.”

It’s that personal contact with other cultures that inspires Rudolph with enough enthusiasm to lead three-hour hikes through six major ecosystems in all kinds of weather. Rudolph’s most memorable recent experiences include touring with Korean architects who came to study IslandWood as a prototype for environmentally responsible construction, and her encounter with young Taiwanese women pursuing environmental studies. “We became instant friends, and they offered to come to our home, where they taught a friend and me to cook a delicious meal,” she said.

While graduate students teach the fourth- through sixth graders who come with their teachers to stay at IslandWood for environmental studies, docents are in charge of adult groups. They lead about 2,300 tours yearly for groups that include architects, geologists, educators, photographers, pathologists and even clergy from many countries, in addition to Sunday tours for local visitors. Docent trainees receive eight weeks of intensive classes, followed by interning with experienced tour guides and ongoing monthly meetings and workshops.

Writing What You Know
Marcia Rudoff, who had a long career as a high school teacher, counselor and principal, says the most valuable teaching she did was at Watts High School in Los Angeles, “where I learned more [than I taught] from those kids about life. We can teach, but we are also always learning.”

Reluctant to retire, she decided to “teach on my own terms as a volunteer.” She initiated a memoir writing class, but “when the class was over, my students didn’t want to stop,” she said. So the group continued to meet at the Senior Center as the Memoir Club, a group that thrives with new members even today. “It’s wonderful to watch the social interaction [between members], which is as enriching as getting their stories told,” Rudoff said.

After serving as a founding board member of the Field’s End writers organization and writing essays for anthologies, Rudoff, at age 80, published her first book, “We Have Stories—A Handbook for Writing Your Memoirs.” She also writes a monthly column about Senior Center issues for the Bainbridge Review and volunteers at the Bainbridge Island Historical Society.

Love Lives On
Just as the preceding volunteers were motivated by seeing a need and finding ways to fill it, Mimi Grace, through her psychotherapy practice, recognized the need for older single people, divorced or widowed, to connect with each other. Her recently published book, “Still in the Game: Finding Love After 65,” is based on case histories of “wise women and men,” as Grace refers to them, who have established successful relationships later in life.

Becoming a published author marks Grace’s third, or perhaps fourth, act. Married at age 19, she became a college student while her three children were teenagers. After graduation, she worked as a psychiatric nurse in hospitals in Bellevue and Kirkland. Having always been interested in helping people, Grace later returned for an advanced degree from Antioch College and has been in private practice since 1988, working with couples on relationship issues and counseling older people with terminal illnesses.

For information on the volunteer opportunities mentioned in this story, go to sustainablebainbridge.org, or islandwood.org