EVERETT — Every Wednesday, a group gathers for a makeshift Christian service at The Terrace at Beverly Lake, a memory care center in south Everett.
Woodé and Patty Brinkerhoff, husband and wife, make their way around the room to shake hands. They catch up on personal news. They make jokes. They laugh. They know everyone by name.
Then they sing from large-print hymnals. Woodé in his baritone voice, which lilts effortlessly into falsetto. Patty in soprano. The pastel yellow room fills with the slightly off-kilter harmony that’s reminiscent of any smalltown church.
Even if residents have trouble with their memories, many remember these songs, which they have known all their lives. And everyone remembers the Lord’s Prayer that is spoken at the end of the service.
The event is thrown by the SonShine Society, based south of Everett. For 45 years now, the group’s members have made it their mission to bring church to people living in nursing homes, locally and across the nation.
“Some of these people have been going to church their whole life,” Patty Brinkerhoff said. “It is a huge loss to them, then, to have no church, no fellowship, anything.”
Her father, Herm Haakenson, was inspired to start the SonShine Society after a brush with death.
He was out fishing in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, near Deadman’s Island, when the weather turned stormy. His ship, the Jan Marie, hit some rocks and water started rising up around him. He was unable to radio his brother, who was on another ship nearby.
Luckily, his brother found him, and Haakenson was rescued just as the Jan Marie sank for good.
“He had a real sense that God spared his life for a purpose,” said Sharon Haakenson, his daughter and Patty Brinkerhoff’s sister.
Herm already had been doing ministry at a nearby nursing home, but he was inspired to do more. In 1973, the SonShine Society was born.
The goal was to “recruit, train and equip” volunteers for ministry in nursing homes. For much of the group’s existence, the SonShine Society has printed its own hymnals along with other church materials. Herm Haakenson also wrote a training guide on the subject and started a quarterly newsletter that is sent all over.
He died in 2002. Sharon Haakenson and Patty Brinkerhoff have kept their father’s dream alive. They continue printing materials out of the same headquarters — a pair of unassuming yellow buildings. They still send out a newsletter, which now includes email and which has grown to more than 10,000 subscribers across the United States and in Canada. And they still go to several local senior living homes to sing songs and say prayers.
The scope of need has gotten bigger. As the nation’s population ages, more and more people are living in nursing homes. If they want to stay in touch with their religion, it’s important for churches to expand their ministries, according to one newsletter.
Technology is a factor, too. Just last year, the SonShine Society bought a new printer to take the place of an old printing press. Woodé Brinkerhoff gestured to a room in the office with gallons of chemicals and boxes upon boxes of negatives depicting scriptures and songs.
“This whole room is obsolete now,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve turned on the light in three, four months.”
With the new printer, Woodé Brinkerhoff just has to press a couple of buttons and it’ll spit out what he needs in no time.
After decades of volunteering through the society, Patty Brinkerhoff said the best part has been the people.
“They’re just delightful and welcoming and they love you. … Keep going back and eventually you become friends,” she said. “There’s an open door for us.”
On Saturday, the SonShine Society will be celebrating its 45th anniversary with an afternoon event, consisting of a meet-and-greet, workshops and a spaghetti dinner. It will take place at the Days Inn by Wyndham Seattle-Aurora, 19527 Aurora Ave. N.
More info: 206-542-6300, www.sonshinesociety.org.