The phrase "Michelangelo Moment," meaning the instant of inspiration when someone is touched to make a difference, first came to mind for me relating to Bellevue business leader and philanthropist Joan Wallace's impact on the lives of the families in the Yakima Valley town of Granger.
It was seven years ago that I first learned of and wrote about the then decade-old commitment by Wallace, now retired from her role as president of Wallace Properties to a cause distant from her Bellevue home where she has been involved in community causes too numerous to count.
That "moment" was 16 years when the story of Joan Wallace's role with the mostly Hispanic children of Granger and their families began at a 2003 Thanksgiving dinner with her sister in law.
Wallace listened over dinner while Janet Wheaton, then principal of Granger Middle School, expressed concern that the children, who had little food at home, would be going hungry without their two in-school meals a day over the Christmas holidays because the school would be out.
When Wallace returned home, an email donation request to pay for Christmas baskets of food went out to a few dozen of her closest friends and associates and soon thereafter, a non-profit named "Children of Granger" was formed.
Thus began an ongoing commitment by two women, one an educator and one a prominent Bellevue business leader. Their continuing involvement changed the future for the families in the city of 3,500 where the population is 84 percent Latino or Hispanic and 35 percent of the families live below the poverty level.
After writing the first Granger column, an annual update of the dramatic things that continued to unfold in Granger because of Wallace and Wheaton became my regular Thanksgiving offering to readers of The Harp.
Everything they did was aimed at helping kid break the poverty barrier, from
giving each child in all grade levels an annual $200 "slush fund" for things like shoes and coats to giving mothers of pre-schoolers learning toys that brought grants once they proved the value of their "Ready for Kindergarten" program.
"While doing our best to take care of the immediate needs, we also believe it is equally important to cultivate self-sufficiency and to enable these children to finish school," Wallace said.
But the most dramatic story of the impact that the two women had was with the successful campaign at the middle school five years ago to build a program to improve attendance because of its key to educational advancement. They came up with a slogan that became a mantra, "Every Child, Every desk, Every Day."
Thus in 2014, I was able to share that the little non-profit had put together a relationship with nearby Heritage University and its largely Hispanic student body and that the relationship had led to the first-ever grant to Families of Granger.
The $15,000 grant from the Yakima Valley Community Foundation, due largely to the involvement of Heritage student and mother of four Alma Sanchez, was used to implement an attendance-incentive program that Sanchez had created.
Those two things basically made 2014 the little non-profit's most important year. And there was a degree of magic in the results of Alma's idea. a quarterly incentive program aimed at perfect attendance.
Driven by the attendance-campaign slogan and the commitment of children, parents, and teachers, the school set the mark for best attendance record in the state, with an absentee rate of 4 percent, compared to a statewide average of 16 percent absenteeism, outdoing schools even in places like Mercer Island and Bellevue.
I knew that accomplishment would go largely unnoticed by media and business leaders in Western Washington. So I met with Kemper Freeman, Pam Pearson of Q13 and Mike Patterson, since deceased, whose law firm represented a number of school districts and together we created a special award called Innovations in Education.
All involved, most especially Wallace, Wheaton, and Alma, were honored at a banquet at the Rainier Club and presented with plaques to help them remember the accomplishment that helped change a community.
The Yakima Foundation got involved with a grant for the attendance campaign and has supported the annual effort since.
Last week an email arrived from Wallace advising that the time for an exit to her active involvement in Granger had arrived. "The time has come and the path is not only clear but exciting and gratifying," she said, adding in the mail to her Friends of Granger, "together we have made a difference." She included a chart that showed "we poured $425,000 into the community."
"With my sister in law now retired and no longer living in Granger, Friends of Granger will go back to the community to be run by a committee of teachers and community leaders," Wallace wrote.
"Over the years, more and more of the teachers have been donating a small monthly portion of their salaries to Friends of Granger. Moreover, with the shift in leadership, we predict that even more will participate. It takes less than $20,000 a year to run the food and emergency fund program. Janet and I have committed to donating annual funds to make up any deficiency for the programs. We have a proven structure in place and passionate and capable people committed to continuing the mission of Friends of Granger. Who knows where it will grow from here?"
But in another email to me, it became clear where Wallace intends to grow from here, causing me to realize she had encountered another Michelangelo Moment, touched with the inspiration to bring her talents to an organization called Acres of Diamonds.
She explained that she had recently joined the board and had agreed to chair the capital campaign for the organization that is a homeless shelter for women with young children, "a faith-based organization with a success rate of over 80 percent."
Acres of Diamonds is located in Duvall but serves the greater Eastside teaching the women "the skills they need to develop their existing strength," Wallace wrote.
"The women are taught household management, parenting skills, budgeting, anger management, and they are provided childcare and expenses to go to school," Wallace said. "But they must commit to job-skill training, abstinence from substance abuse, getting a job, and contributing to their cost of care when they are capable."
She added that "the program lasts two to three years and has been extraordinarily successful."
I will be expecting an email ask soon, to which I'll respond as always.