SULTAN — They call her Mom.
A half-dozen homeless and hungry men show up for dinner on Friday afternoons at the Sultan United Methodist Church. She urges them to fill their plates. She asks about their struggles with alcohol and their attempts to get jobs.
She wants to know if they need batteries because she’s just bought some. One guy tells her he hates to impose. “Seeing that you’re retired and all.”
“I’m not going to retire until they sign my death certificate,” she says.
She is Donna Rice, 75, of Startup, a woman known in the Sky Valley as a midwife, masseuse, seamstress and caregiver. She also a house cleaner, foster parent, life saver, food bank volunteer and just simply a good Samaritan.
She started the free dinners in Sultan several years ago after the Skykomish River flooded and swept away the belongings of a group of men living under the bridges at the edge of downtown. In the beginning, she bought them sleeping bags and offered them food out of the back of her car.
“Some people did not want me to feed the guys because some were panhandling to pay for alcohol,” Rice said. “I told city officials that whether you panhandle or not, you still need to eat.”
Rice grew up in Seattle where one of her first memories is of giving a classmate the shoes off her own feet.
“This girl did not have shoes or a coat,” Rice said. “This was after World War II, and in our family we only got one pair of shoes a year. I had to ask the girl for the shoes back. I felt so bad.
“As I grew up, I found myself just giving, almost automatically. I never looked for a reward. When you have it in your heart, you just do it — try to help people in need or those who just need a friend.”
Rice’s husband, Jerry, died three months ago. They’d been married 55 years, and had made a life of caring for other people, whether it was sharing the fruits of their garden labors or milk from their cows.
She sheds a few tears at the thought of Jerry’s absence and then cries a little more, with pride this time, about their legacy: five children and 14 grandsons who also have focused their lives on helping others.
“Sometimes, my kids would say, ‘you let people take advantage of you.’ But later they understood,” she said. “They know my motto is ‘pay it forward.’”
To provide the meals on Fridays, Rice has the help of the Maltby Food Bank and volunteer Tracy Vanhee, 48, of Gold Bar.
Fridays are a day off from her job for Vanhee, so she is able to make a special meal for those who show up at the church. On a recent Friday, she brought an enchilada casserole.
“I like working with Donna. She just gives nonstop,” Vanhee said. “She’s been known to take people home and care for them there. It’s amazing what she does.”
During the past 50 years, Rice also has delivered more than 300 babies, primarily in homes in the Sky Valley. Two of her own children were born at home, so when faced with the challenge of helping deliver a niece in an emergency, she had the confidence to serve in the role of a midwife.
“Later on I met people who could not afford to have their babies in the hospital, so I ended up delivering babies for them,” Rice recalled. “Word got around and many people wanted home deliveries. I never put anyone at risk and I made sure they went to the doctor’s appointments.”
Wanting to help elderly people in pain, she also studied to become a massage therapist.
“With the babies and the massage, I did a lot of work for free. As long as I made people feel better or a nice baby was born, I felt good about it,” Rice said. “When I turned 75, I decided not to renew my massage license. I’ve been doing it for 28 years.”
Because much of Rice’s volunteer work is just as a neighbor and a friend, she has operated under the radar, even to the point of saving a life with no acclaim, said Neil Parekh, spokesman for United Way of Snohomish County. Parekh said he knows of Rice only because some of her children volunteer for United Way.
A story told about Rice sticks with him.
Once Rice checked on a senior neighbor who she hadn’t seen in a few days. Rice found the woman collapsed on the floor and got her immediate medical attention. While the neighbor was in the hospital, Rice cleaned the woman’s house and then got her back home and comfortable, Parekh said.
“Sometimes, the community hero is the woman next door,” he said.
One of the men waiting to be served enchilada casserole on Friday expressed his gratitude for the meal.
“I look forward to Fridays,” said Corey Mattila, 25. “It’s nice to get out from under the bridge. It’s nice that these ladies do this for us.”
“I never wanted to be rich,” Rice said. “If I was, I would have been poor the next day, because I would have bought land and built houses for all my neighbors without homes.”
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.