Making a community whole

Life’s mystery is that nothing goes as planned. The heartbreak of the March 22 Oso mudslide gave way to unscripted acts of selflessness and grace. No bureaucratic flow chart anticipated the majesty of volunteers, families and students working in common cause toward a common purpose.

But the majesty of institutions? Animated by people committed to meaningful, long-term support, Washington State University put a face on the faceless stereotype of higher ed. In the wake of Oso, it gave expression to its land-grant mission, throwing experts and students into the interrupted life and wounded landscape of the Stilliguamish Valley. Less chin scratching, more get-your-hands-dirty.

Just days after the slide, WSU President Elson Floyd reached out to Darrington Mayor Dan Rankin to plot next steps. Already WSU, along with the UW, waived tuition for the 2014-15 academic year for students in Darrington and Oso, and WSU Snohomish County Extension helped to evacuate and care for farm critters.

But then, something more. WSU already was embedded in the valley, and local extension office director Curt Moulton took the reins, providing technical assistance and coordinating an internship program to help with recovery. WSU/Everett’s Interim Chancellor, former Snohomish County Executive Bob Drewel, an Arlington resident, was the magoozler-in-chief, quietly managing a relief strategy, while directing light and attention to others. A WSU community and economic development coordinator, Judy Pendergrass, was hired for two years to work with youth and local businesses in Darrington on tourism, employment, natural resources and economic development.

WSU’s vision isn’t to dictate but to harmonize with what community members require over the long haul. It’s a philosophy Gov. Jay Inslee embraced, from a $300,000 program to save Hampton Mill to scissoring red tape on the SR 530 rebuild.

On Thursday, WSU hosted a lunch at the Darrington Community Center, featuring an agenda and speeches, but little chest thumping. The quiet stars were the WSU interns, and the ordinary people who rose to the tragedy. People like Oso Fire Chief Willy Harper, Arlington Mayor Barb Tolbert and Darrington’s Rankin, who let ego fall away.

“We will restore this community to what it was before,” Floyd said.

But there is a dividing line, a before and after the slide. The people, like the landscape, transfigured. No before. The valley is a stronger, more cohesive, more confident place.

Through the crucible of the mudslide, the community knows what it’s made of, and what it can be.

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