Oso survivors pay forward support they once received

ARLINGTON — There are 43 of them holding yellow ribbons that read “Oso Hope.”

The stuffed bears, dogs and other critters were being sent to Eastern Washington. Local firefighters will carry them along as they assist with wildfires.

The yellow ribbons, plus Subway gift cards, were added to the stuffed animals by the families of those lost in the deadly March 2014 mudslide between Oso and Darrington.

As time passed, many of the families have found themselves looking outward, said Tim Ward, a survivor who lost his wife.

The survivors have found they possess energy and focus, and a new group of friends bonded by a shared grief. They wanted to turn those resources to something positive, to help others, and “for something other than reflecting back on our losses,” Ward said Tuesday.

All of them have received help in countless ways, said Jessica Pszonka-Lutz, who lost her sister and five other family members in the slide.

So much of that help arrived anonymously, in the form of quilts, cash and supplies, she said.

Ward received a blanket at the hospital from a random family. He kept the blanket close for months. The family included their picture with the blanket. He liked that, so he attached a picture of himself and his dog, Blue, to one of the stuffed animals.

Eventually, the families would like the Oso Hope project to grow, so they can send supplies and gifts after other disasters. They are hoping to connect with corporate sponsors, said Peggy Ray, a Marysville woman who has stepped up to organize advocacy for survivors.

“We want to definitely expand,” Pszonka-Lutz said.

They remember all too well what it was like not to have a toothbrush, extra underwear or a phone charger. Accepting gifts was humbling. It feels good to be a giver again, she said.

Some of the families get together regularly. More and more survivors attend the weekly support group, Ward said. It takes guts to walk in that room for the first time, he said. He tells others: “Just come in, sit down and breathe. You’re not alone.”

Still, many of those affected have moved away and stayed away. Those who are close still see each other posting to Facebook in the middle of the night. Then they know it’s OK to call. Whoever is posting couldn’t sleep either.

Art projects, such as the bears, and rocks they’re painting to place beneath the memorial trees at the slide, give their time a purpose, Ray said.

There’s only so long that one can focus on his own grief, Ward said. The slide happened and they can never change that.

“We understand what we’ve been through and we understand that we’re where we are,” he said.

The number of Oso Hope stuffed animals going to Eastern Washington is 43, the same number as those killed in the slide. That number felt right, Pszonka-Lutz said.

Now, helping others will honor those who were lost, and the love and the legacy they left behind.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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