BILL GATES, SR. pauses for a moment. After more than seven decades of helping others, it’s going to take some doing for him to recall his earliest act of volunteerism.
“When I was a Boy Scout, which was 12- to 15-years old,’’ he says finally, his left hand tapping rhythmically on the desk in his glass-walled office. “It was a regular ingredient of the Boy Scout life to be a participant in some kind of organization or activity that was helpful to others.”
Gates, 88, is, of course, now involved in philanthropy on a global scale. As co-director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, he oversees multimillion-dollar initiatives focused on education, health care, research and advocacy.
He says he doesn’t have the “slightest idea” how many lives he’s touched. What he does know, though, is that the feeling he gets from helping others is the same whether it’s one person or millions.
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“I don’t think there’s any difference at all,’’ he says.
In many ways, Gates is a reflection of Seattle, a city that has embraced the ethos of giving in ways large and small.
Volunteerism is so much a part of our civic life that it’s easy to forget how much better our city is because of it. Look closely, and you’ll see people weeding invasive species from our city parks. People running local history museums and making earthquake plans. They’re raking leaves from storm drains, helping refugee families get settled, teaching children about tide pools and staffing the all-night coffee bar at a homeless shelter.
Thanks to them, we have farmers markets and parades, power tools to borrow, children who can read better and venues for bright young poets. They give us marching bands in the streets of Georgetown, jugglers on stages in Ballard and books in our libraries.
Their passions become our privileges, and our community becomes richer for it.
It’s a way of life that sets us apart from other cities. A 2010 study by Seattle CityClub found that Greater Seattle ranked fourth among the nation’s 51 largest cities for volunteering, with the largest numbers giving to children’s and education organizations.
Nationwide, nearly 27 percent of the population — about 83 million people — volunteered to help their neighbors, churches, schools and charities in 2011, according to an annual survey by the Corporation for National and Community Service.
In Washington, the figure was higher: Nearly 35 percent of residents spent an average of 40 hours a year in volunteer pursuits, according to the survey.
“The contribution being made by volunteers is really gigantic,’’ Gates says. “It doesn’t take a lot of force or pitch-making to get people to do things for others. I really do think there’s a huge degree of sensitivity to what a person can do to be helpful to other people.”
Old, young, employed and retired. Religious, atheist, rich or struggling, volunteers will often say the same thing: If life is a search for connection, service to others can lead you there.
IT’S MID-MAY, and more than 50 fifth-graders from Sanislo Elementary School are clustered on Judy Pickens’ brick patio in West Seattle. The kids are amped: They’ve just released the juvenile salmon they raised — salmon that Pickens helped bring to their school as eggs about four months earlier — into Fauntleroy Creek under the watchful eye of Pickens and her husband, Phillip Sweetland.
There’s a ritual feel to it as the kids kneel on a rock midstream with cupped hands each containing a tiny fry that, when submerged, swims away to begin its ocean odyssey.
Those not releasing salmon are traipsing on nearby trails with index cards Pickens had made showing ferns and bugs and plants in the park surrounding the creek. Eventually, they head to Pickens’ house to question her about salmon and the creek.
It’s only when I meet with Pickens several months later to sit and talk on her front-porch swing that I realize what an incredible dance she pulled off: the Sanislo group was among about 600 children she hosted this past spring. It’s been that way for more years than she can count.
Pickens, 66, has an easygoing, wise-owl way about her. Wearing a salmon-colored hoodie, a pale blue T-shirt that matches her eyes and sandals with wool socks, she is dressed for her own pleasure.
It may seem odd that a woman raised on a dairy farm in Kansas, a woman raised to think of fish as food, would become an environmental steward for salmon habit in the Northwest.
But, for Pickens, it’s become a calling.
As a child, she attended a one-room Methodist church. In college, she joined the campus ministry and, by extension, the anti-war movement in the 1960s. After graduation, she moved to Seattle to become a writer.
“Everyone is a product of their times, and I’m a product of mine,’’ she says. “So many of us have come out of that caldron and ordered our lives such that we have found ways to bloom where we’re planted, to make a difference where we find ourselves.”
In 1989, she says, “I found myself planted by an urban stream.”
Over 24 years, Pickens has pushed through improvements for the creek habitat and helped run the salmon-release program for 10 elementary schools. Several years ago, she began tutoring students at West Seattle Elementary.
“I want to be known more for my motivation than for what I did,’’ she says. “I believe in the message of the Gospels ‘to do.’ I’m obligated to do for others.”
SUSAN TALLER had no idea what she was getting into when she brought home a German shepherd from a breeder in central Oregon 10 years ago.
“As a puppy, she was crazy,’’ Taller says. Jazz tore holes in Taller’s sweatpants, destroyed down pillows, ate the linoleum in the bathroom, and the leather seats in her Jeep.
“You couldn’t do anything but laugh,’’ says Taller, a cheerful, self-employed accountant from Seattle.
Taller hired a trainer to channel Jazz’ boundless energy, and the new puppy eventually became a first-rate tracking dog. Jazz’ calling is now Taller’s: She spends about 30 hours a week working with King County Search Dogs, the all-volunteer canine unit of the King County Search and Rescue Association.
Since joining the unit eight years ago, Taller, 49, has gone on hundreds of missions to look for lost or injured hikers and hunters, children and seniors with dementia.
Most of the searches are in urban areas, but some involve mountain hikes and the occasional campout.
The search-dog group sets up scent trails on Saturdays and trains every Sunday. Wednesday nights they train newer team members. There are weekly business meetings, projects, visits to Scout troops and schools. . .
“It could very easily become all you did,’’ Taller says. “I try to keep it balanced.”
Still, she finds it almost impossible to get a call and decide, “Oh, it’s a sunny day, I think I’ll stay home.”
The work is intimate, rewarding and, at times, heartbreaking. Taller may go through a missing person’s laundry or take a pillow case from their bed to get a scent that Jazz can track. She meets their family and friends, and sees hope in their eyes when the dog teams set off to find the missing person.
“When you see what they’re going through, as heart-wrenching as it is, it makes you want to do more,’’ she says.
The work, she says, has made her “a completely different person. It’s become a passion. I worked a lot before. I was more career-focused.”
She’s also bonded to Jazz in a way she’d never experienced.
“It’s a different level of intensity,’’ she says about their connection. “You have to read them. They learn to read you. . . It’s like your best friend, but more. It’s like they’re part of you.”
JAY THOMPSON moved away from Seattle’s Judkins Park neighborhood when he was in third grade. He returned as an adult after graduate school because “this part of the city has always felt like home to me.”
Now 30 years old, married and the father of a toddler, Thompson shows sensibilities that seem shaped by the neighborhood of his childhood, a place where people were regularly subjected to injustice, racial discrimination and the ravages of drugs.
A poet, he works full-time as a researcher, studying how children develop scientific thinking and skills. He spends another eight hours a week preparing for and teaching creative writing to women inmates at the King County Jail.
“Part of my work with inmates is about surviving and living in a world that’s pretty unjust,’’ he says over breakfast at the Judkins Street Cafe down the street from his house. “I believe in the intrinsic dignity of people and hope for a better world.”
Thompson, who looks the part of a grad student with his brown sweater vest, started as a volunteer GED tutor at the jail in 2010. He began teaching poetry, memoir and fiction when he saw there was a need.
The class gives women an opportunity to reflect on their lives.
“So often, their release is about survival: finding work, a place to live, staying away from friends who got them into trouble. We’ve had inmates say they were so grateful for the time to think.”
Thompson and his teaching partner, Michael Hood, publish their students’ work in the Golf Pencil Review, a magazine named after the stubby yellow pencils used at the jail.
“I’ve heard amazing and intimate things that are not my stories to tell,’’ Thompson says. “They shared it with us, but they are not our stories to give away. We give them tools to tell those stories.”
Thompson also helped lobby successfully to preserve GED classes for women inmates in 2011 when budget cuts loomed.
Says Thompson: “There’s some part of ourself that we have to switch off when we see suffering in the world and try not to make a difference.” His work at the jail, he says, “is a big gift to myself,” a way to keep his heart from closing.
YECELICA JAIME VALDIVIA’S first question when we meet: Will I be able to describe Jaime Valdivia as a queer organizer who does not identify as male or female, and who prefers to be referred to by the gender-neutral pronouns “they” and “them” instead of “he” or “she”?
Jaime Valdivia is worried that a mainstream news organization would leave that out because its readers might not approve.
It’s a question born of experience. People hear Jaime Valdivia’s Latino name and ask the Washington native, “Where are you from?” They see the androgenous dress and want to know: “Are you a lesbian?” They seek to define Jaime Valdivia in ways that have the effect of defining Jaime Valdivia as someone who doesn’t fit in.
Fighting for acceptance as a queer Latino person and for everyone’s right to be experienced for who they are is at the heart of everything Jaime Valdivia does these days. Calling it volunteerism, Jaime Valdivia says, makes it sound like something you carve from your regular life. But “I can’t not do this work, because it’s my life.’’
Jaime Valdivia, 27, has worked without pay for the Social Justice Fund on racial and gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer issues; also, for the Seattle Young Peopple’s Project, now as a paid co-director teaching marginalized communities how to organize and raise money.
Jaime Valdivia grew up in Yakima and Wapato, the oldest of two children. Their father was a farmworker from Mexico; their mother a warehouse worker who struggled financially after her divorce.
In high school, Jaime Valdivia was the school’s National Honor Society president, and one of the few Latino students taking college-level classes. Jaime Valdivia attended the University of Washington on scholarship, and graduated in 2009 with a degree in anthropology and women’s studies.
Jaime Valdivia says the Gates Foundation paid for that education.
“I definitely think I would be such a different person if I didn’t go to school,’’ Jaime Valdivia says. Education “takes me away from my working-class roots. To have that access and be changed by it, it makes me want to make a difference for others.”
On Jaime Valdivia’s right arm is a tattoo with the words “to love yourself is a revolutionary act.”
“When the whole world is telling you to hate yourself and be someone different, it’s radical not to do that.”
THREE DAYS a week, Kelli O’Brien and her golden retriever, Flash Gordon, hop the bus to downtown Seattle, where O’Brien logs seven-hour days processing requests for books and cassette tapes at the Washington Talking Book & Braille Library.
She works quickly, helping to process the 2,000 or so books and tapes the shipping division sends out daily. Since March 2009, she’s logged more than 2,800 volunteer hours with the library.
O’Brien, 37, was born blind. Her mother taught her to read Braille, beginning in kindergarten. It was a gift, she says, that allowed her to more fully experience the world on her own terms as she went through high school and college, where she ran track and majored in music.
“I don’t have to have someone else reading me the book and have what their voice inflection would be. I don’t have to have how they think the book should be read,’’ she says.
Working at the library allows her to give that to others who are blind or visually impaired.
“I’ve had so many people in my life who have given to me, and I feel it’s my way to contribute to society. It’s an honor to give back to the community.”
Susan Kelleher: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2508. On Twitter @susankelleher. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.