"Rising Strong" with Community Partners

On May 4-5th, Catholic Charities and the Empire Health Foundation hosted a group of distinguished partners for a work session and tour of the Holy Names campus that will be the home of the new Rising Strong program, as well as hundreds of new units of affordable family and senior housing.

Rising Strong will provide a safe alternative for families at risk of separation due to neglect stemming from parental alcohol and substance abuse. It will offer treatment services for parents, along with housing and wraparound support for the whole family. By keeping the family together with supervision and services, trauma is reduced for children and parents are much more likely to succeed in treatment.

The group included representatives from Children’s Administration, Excelsior Youth Services, Spokane Family Court, and Children and Family Futures. Our guest of honor was Dr. Kathryn Icenhower, who shared valuable lessons learned as CEO of Shield for Families in Los Angeles. They have provided family centered treatment with housing in South Central Los Angeles for 25 years, and are both an inspiration and a mentor.

L-R: Heather Cantamessa, Shannon Selland, Jill Gresham, Annie Kurtz, Nadine Van Stone, Kathy Icenhower, Alisha Fehrenbacher, Teri Kook, Janell Grubb, Mike Yeaton, Andrew Hill

L-R: Heather Cantamessa, Shannon Selland, Jill Gresham, Annie Kurtz, Nadine Van Stone, Kathy Icenhower, Alisha Fehrenbacher, Teri Kook, Janell Grubb, Mike Yeaton, Andrew Hill

We tackled a number of key design questions and have laid out clear next steps on our path to launch. We are so lucky to have this committed and collaborative group of people at the table to shape this work!

The Holy Names property itself boasts 35 acres of spectacular wooded grounds right along the Spokane River. The main building is an 86 room convent and in excellent condition, however we expect some kid proofing will be required. It was exciting to walk through the grounds with our partners and see ideas starting to turn to solid action items through our collaborative conversations.

As Commissioner Michelle Ressa of Spokane Family Court puts it: “The children, families and community in Spokane would greatly benefit from increased options for keeping kids safe AND families together. We need more options to keep kids safe while families address the issues that led to court involvement."


Guest Blog: Personal Reflections on Recent Shootings

On Monday May 2nd, Aaron D Johnson, a Spokane man with schizophrenia, was shot by police answering a domestic violence call at the West Wynn Motel. This event came within a week of officers shooting a homeless man wielding a knife and threatening self-harm outside of the House of Charity. Sadly for Aaron Johnson, this was not his first run in with police that ended in gunshots. The following is a personal reflection from Maurice Smith, who was with Johnson the night of his first shooting by police in 2014. Maurice shared his reflection with the Spokane Homeless Coalition, and it made its way to BHT and Empire Health Foundation leadership. We are sharing his thoughtful reflection with permission, in hopes that his perspective inspires a compassionate community response to these recent and ongoing tragedies. 

For several days now I have wanted to write this in response to the shooting of a homeless individual outside of House of Charity. I felt the need to say something, based on my own experiences, but I hesitated. Then something happened to galvanize my thoughts and to compel me to write them down in the hope of offering some perspective. I read about the shooting on Monday at the West Wynn Motel and I saw the name of the victim: Aaron D. Johnson. I was stunned and taken back two years to a cold night in January of 2014. You see, Mr. Johnson and I have a history together.

It was a Thursday. I received a call from Marty McKinney, the day-to-day Director of Truth Ministries Men’s Shelter on east Sprague.

“Can you handle the opening shift at the Shelter tonight. Julie and I have been invited to a birthday party and we would like to go.”

“No problem,” I said. “I’ve got you covered. Have fun.”

My wife and I had worked with Marty, Julie and the men for several years, including as long-time board members. I had worked the opening shift countless times. No big deal. This night would be no exception.

The shelter opened for the men at 8:00PM. I could tell by the crowd in the waiting room that we would be full, just like the night before. We would have 40+ men in the house. In addition, I had another half-a-dozen volunteers from a local Church there to fix and serve dinner. Toward the end of check in, Mr. Johnson showed up, toting a plastic bag of personal belongings and a wooden 3-foot-long 4X4 (?!). In the crowd of people around the check-in desk, he slipped past me and headed toward the bed he had occupied the previous night (without checking in). Fortunately one of my desk volunteers caught him and sent him back to me for check in. As I attempted to talk with him and process his check-in, he became verbally confrontational (even irrational), refusing to cooperate and surrender his bag of personal items (normal for check-in when all bags and backpacks are tagged and stored in a holding area for safe-keeping). Things were escalating. His language became increasingly threatening (words like “kill” and “murder” are not ones we want to hear during check-in).

I now had a decision to make. We operated under some basic rules for such situations. First, try to dial things down. Let the air out. Don’t make a situation worse by adding to it. Second, isolate the individual and take away any audience who might further ratchet things up. Third, if the first two fail, take the situation (i.e., the guest) and any danger it might pose, outside. I had a shelter full of men and church volunteers to consider. Their safety came first. He was already becoming threatening toward me. Would that get worse if I allowed him to stay? I informed Mr. Johnson that it was time for him to leave, and I gently shepherded him toward the door (all of this caught on video which was later reviewed many times). 

But then I had another problem. Once outside, he crossed the alley and stood beside the cars of the church volunteers. Great. They would soon be leaving and heading for their cars. What if he threatened one of them. Next, one of my shelter volunteers said, “Maurice, did you see that he had a knife?” No, I hadn’t seen that. I had only seen the 4X4, and that was bad enough. Now I had another decision to make. Do I let things "play out," or do I take pre-emptive action? I called 911 and explained what was going on. “I need the Police to come and get him out of the alley.”

I returned to the night’s immediate need - completing the check in for the men who would be staying. Then it happened. The sound I can never forget.

“Pop - pop.” Pause. “Pop - pop - pop - pop.” 

In case you’re wondering, yes, gun shots really do sound like fire crackers. At least that’s what my volunteers thought. “Were those fire crackers?” one of them asked. I groaned. “No,” I said. “Those weren’t fire crackers.”

Out in the alley, the Police had arrived. When they attempted to confront Mr. Johnson he brandished the knife my volunteers had seen. When he refused their orders to drop the knife, and when tasering proved ineffective, they opened fire. Although shot eight times, Mr. Johnson survived.

I spent the next six hours with the Police as they investigated and recorded the crime scene, reviewed the internal video recording and interviewed everyone (yes, everyone) in the shelter as to what they had seen and heard. I arrived home around 3AM and spent the next few hours lying in bed, re-living the night's events and wondering. Had he been tweaking? I had helped meth addicts detox before. They can be delusional, irrational and aggressive. Is that what happened? It had happened before in the shelter when I was there. Or had I made a mistake this time? Would things have turned out differently for everyone involved if I had handled things better? 3AM is a lonely time to wrestle with such questions. I don't wish it on anyone.

As it turned out, Mr. Johnson was not a meth-head. He had been struggling with schizophrenia, had been off his medications, and had been building toward an episode for some time. That "time" turned out to be 8:45 on a Thursday evening at Truth Ministries while I was attempting to check him in for the night. 

So, yes, Mr. Johnson and I have a history together. And my heart sank in one of those "Oh, no, not again" moments when I read that he was the victim of a police shooting at the West Wynn Motel. On a personal level, I am tired of this seemingly unending nightmare, whether at Truth Ministries, House of Charity or the West Wynn. But in the midst of my own painful reflections on these events, I would like to offer some perspective. Not everyone will agree with me, but that's OK. I offer this simply as someone who has been there.

First, be slow to judge events and those involved. As a former pastor, I am reminded of the words of Jesus, when He said, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24). That's good advice. Frequently, things are not what they appear to be at first glance. Initial reports are often incomplete. There is often more (or less) to the story than appearance suggests. Get all the facts before you start drawing conclusions. As a result of my own experiences, I am much slower to make snap judgments; about people, about situations, about what could or could not have been done better or differently.

Second, show grace to those involved, and resist the urge to point fingers of blame, at least until we have time to put all of the puzzle pieces together. We don't know if anyone involved did anything "wrong" to create this situation. If they did, it will eventually come out. But sometimes a tragedy is simply a tragedy, with no culprit to blame. And this is a tragedy for everyone involved. Ordinary people who never wanted to be a player in such a tragedy now find themselves awake at 3AM asking "Why?" and "What could I have done differently?" Trust me on this one. Been there. Done this.

Third, let the full impact of these happenings sink in. Let them change you and motivate you. Resist anger and the temptation to embrace an agenda or to over-react. Instead, embrace passion for the marginalized, and turn your response toward a personal resolution to make a difference.

Fourth, let this be the beginning of a renewed and productive conversation about the needs of the vulnerable and marginalized in our community. The need to get people off the streets, even out of shelters, and into stable housing. The need to better address the mental health needs of people like Mr. Johnson or Mike Kurtz (the man shot outside the House of Charity). The need to better resolve such situations without having to resort to deadly force. The need to find creative solutions, rather than assigning blame and somehow thinking that will solve our problems. It won't. 

Fifth, allow these events change you. They have the potential to make you a better, wiser, more compassionate, more patient and more reflective person. Maybe even someone who can make a difference on behalf of others. Trust me on this one. Been there. Done this.

Finally, I have one last thing to do, perhaps the hardest of all. I need to reach out to and contact the family of Aaron Johnson. I want to tell them in person about the history between myself and their son and nephew. I want to assure them that there are those in Spokane who care deeply about what has transpired. And that Aaron's journey may yet yield hope and help for many others who share a similar journey. It's the least I can do. I owe them that much. After all, we have a history together, and I need to see it through. For their sake and for Aaron's . . . and for mine.

-Maurice Smith

Job Openings at Family Impact Network!

Check out these postings for two positions which have opened up at our subsidiary, Family Impact Network.  You can download the job descriptions to learn more about the positions, and you can visit Family Impact Network's website for more information on the work they are doing to support efforts to transition vulnerable children and families from crisis to resilience!

Paper Tigers Screenings in May and June

EHF is delighted to announce more screenings of the documentary Paper Tigers will be held throughout our community in the months of May and June!  The film follows a year in the life of an alternative high school that has radically changed its approach to disciplining its students, becoming a promising model for how to break the cycles of poverty, violence and disease that affect families.  If you are curious about the innovative work being done to prevent and mitigate Adverse Childhood Experiences here in Washington State, check out one of the screenings below:

or more information, contact Christina Kamkosi at christina@empirehealthfoundation.org!

Meet Mike Nowling, May's Featured Board Member

We are excited to continue our monthly series highlighting our Board of Directors!  This month we are delighted to feature Mike Nowling.  Take a look at the interview below!

And in case you missed it, you can check out our Board Member interviews with Sue Lani MadsenMatt LaytonTodd KoyamaMary SeleckyGary StokesJeff Bell, Latisha Hill, and Samuel Selinger on our blog.

Who are you and what do you do?

Since retiring after a career in healthcare leadership, I am continuing to try to be the best husband and father I can be.  My wife Carol and I enjoy traveling to visit our four children spread out all over the country, literally coast to coast.  We also enjoy traveling to new destinations around the world when opportunities present themselves.  One of my most important daily responsibilities at home is to pick up after the dog. (As you can guess, I am still working through the whole retirement thing....)

Tell us about yourself and your background.

After 33 years or so as a healthcare executive, I retired several years ago.  Carol and I have lived in Spokane for 25 years and raised our four children here – we still love it.  I was born and raised in California, attended college in Idaho, and received a graduate degree from Arizona State in Tempe.  Our first home after getting married was in Saudi Arabia, for two years.  One aspect of my career of which I am quite proud is my experience in both the not-for-profit the for-profit world.

What is your favorite book?

It’s a tie between A Wrinkle In Time and To Kill A Mockingbird.  Both of these merit reading every year.  I am also currently reading The Great Upheaval by Jaw Wink – and find it fascinating.

How long have you been a member of the Empire Health Foundation Board?

I have no idea...three years?  It's gone so fast!

What attracted you to the Empire Health Foundation Board of Directors?

I was actually very interested in serving with the EHF board at its outset. The idea of working with a new foundation to seek new ways to influence the health of our region was very compelling.  At the time, I was envious of those founding board members, but in the end, I think it worked out very well for me.  The founding board had to work so hard just establishing EHF as an entity and dealing with the very difficult issues that existed at its creation.  They did all the heavy lifting! Now we are having fun leveraging all their hard work, and we are now able to be innovative and seek ways to really make a difference.  So much of what we are doing today has its roots in the values and decisions of those original board members….we owe them a great debt of gratitude.

What most excites you about our work and mission?

The whole concept of philanthropy 3.0 and how it is being realized through our work – very exciting!

Has anything surprised you about Empire Health Foundation?  If so, what?

I can’t say anything has really surprised me about EHF.  I continue to be impressed by the sophistication and organizational effectiveness of EHF given its relative youth as an entity.  It is amazing to see how EHF has grown from its creation — it is mature beyond its years.

Finally, when you have an out-of-town guest visit, what is your “must do” in your community?

In the summer, a day on our boat on the lake.  In the winter, a drive through the Palouse. Come to think of it, a drive through the Palouse is a “must-do” any time of year…every season is spectacular!  Aren’t we all so blessed to live in such a magnificent region?