Options’ project aims to bridge tribal gap

SUQUAMISH — North End resident Rhonda Williamson will freely tell you her favorite word is “bridge.”

And when it comes to providing spans between the cultures of the Port Gamble S’Klallam and the Port Madison Suquamish tribes, Williamson jumps at chances to do so.

One of the latest endeavors she’s coordinated has been the Elders Project, which has connected students in the school district’s Junior High Options Program to the most senior members of the Suquamish Tribe through service projects at the elders’ homes.

What transpires is a lesson in altruism and community awareness.

“They’re doing good deeds and not expecting anything in return,” Williamson said.

In all, about 12 Options students have visited the elders six times this year, performing yard maintenance, window cleaning, and a variety of tasks for those who need it most. Parent volunteers Jackie Stenstrom, Patsy Bryan and Moira Prendergast have also participated in the transportation and on-site gardening work.

The first step is contacting the tribal elders and having the Options students meet with them to determine what services are needed. Williamson said this aspect ensures the project is entirely student driven.

“The students (are) involved at every level of the process ... it is really their project,” she stated. “We want them to learn the value and necessity of community service in our society and our North End community.”

The project’s creator is Bob Dash, a teacher in the Parent Assisted Learning Program. He did so to help encourage diversity in the community.

“Nature is healthiest when it’s diverse — and the same goes for culture,” he said. “And there’s a lot of diversity in this community that people don’t connect with.”

Their work at elders’ homes has clearly been well received.

“This is truly a blessing,” said Marilyn Wandrey, Chair of the Suquamish Tribal Elders Council, who received assistance from the Options students June 15. “I’m really grateful that I’m one of the recipients of this.”

Wandrey viewed the program as a positive step toward improving relationships between tribal and non-tribal residents.

“I do believe that we’re getting somewhere,” she said. “These young people are getting to meet tribal folks and when we see them in the community, we’ll know their names.”

She added that it was great to see the students, “getting their hands in the dirt,” something that’s “... a powerful in itself to be next to Mother Earth.”

Williamson said naivety among non-natives is a leading cause of communication problems between the tribes and their neighbors. If the students learn of the Suquamish and S’Klallam heritages early on, the relationship will grow stronger, she added.

“If these guys understand this community at their age, it will create a better community,” she said. “Understanding is friendship.”

Williamson’s interest in the project stems from her work on her master’s degree in education through Antioch University’s “First People” Program at the Muckleshoot Tribal College in Auburn. She’s also a parent of an Options alumnus and was a classroom volunteer there.

The students have learned that while their selflessness is often reciprocated, it doesn’t have to be to make the experience worthwhile.

“I think it’s just nice to know you’re helping someone,” said Options seventh grader Ross Bryan, as he weeded Wandrey’s yard. “I don’t expect anything back. It’s just a feeling of satisfaction to give something to someone.”

The students clearly noted differences between their own culture and the tribe’s through stories the elders would tell.

“It’s much different from my history,” said Vivian Suarez, an Options ninth grader. “They have a whole different way, history of doing things. It’s really interesting.”

Their own giving is satisfying, remarked ninth grader Jasper Stenstrom.

“One of the best things is after you’re all finished and you say thank you to them,” he said.

A midday lunch, provided by Wandrey, allowed time for the Suquamish elder to tell stories. Before she talked of perils and successes of past canoe journeys, she thanked the students for their efforts.

“I hope that I will get to see you in years to come,” she said. “And I hope to see what you’ll become.”

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