Peggy Ray (center), Tracey Nelson (left) and Doris Drohin (right) organize food brought in by Jeannie Lish (background) at the Arlington Community Resource Center on Nov. 20. Ray began the center in the aftermath of the Oso mudslide and now oversees six family centers in Snohomish County. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Peggy Ray (center), Tracey Nelson (left) and Doris Drohin (right) organize food brought in by Jeannie Lish (background) at the Arlington Community Resource Center on Nov. 20. Ray began the center in the aftermath of the Oso mudslide and now oversees six family centers in Snohomish County. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

She created a space for Oso mudslide survivors to heal

Suddenly there was a dire need for people to gather, talk and cry, in a place where they felt safe.

This is one of a collection of stories about philanthropy in Snohomish County.

ARLINGTON — Two months after the mudslide, Peggy Ray arrived at a cold schoolhouse basement in Oso.

She flipped on a heater, arranged the chairs in the shape of a horseshoe and waited for two hours, alone. She’d given out flyers for a grief group, but no one came. She turned off the heater, tore down the chairs and left.

A week later she returned. Same routine. Same result.

She returned the next week, too, and the week after that. Finally a man walked through the door. Tim Ward’s wife, Brandy, was among the 43 people who died March 22, 2014. He survived being buried alive.

That day he talked for two hours with Ray, a mother of seven kids. Grief doesn’t have a 12-step program.

“It’s a roller coaster, and it’s a figure eight,” Ray said. “You’re going to have triggers. Even three years, four years, 10 years down the road, something’s going to trigger you, and you’re going to cry. And you’ll think, ‘What’s wrong with me? It’s been 10 years.’ No, it’s a process, and those are triggers, and you’re never going to get over it. You’re going to get through it.”

The next week, another person showed up to talk. Then another. Eventually, they needed a better space to come together. The Arlington Community Center opened in the aftermath of the tragedy, at a senior center at 18308 Smokey Point Boulevard.

Lutheran Community Services runs six family centers in Snohomish County. Ray, 42, manages three of them.

Arlington’s center had been in planning stages for many months, before the slide. All of a sudden there was a dire need for people to gather, talk and cry, in a place where they felt safe. Since then, Ray said, it has turned into a base for the survivors to give back to a community that offered so much to them.

Karen Pszonka, 59, lost six family members that day. Through the grief group, she could talk about her nightmares, and how the whirring of a helicopter still takes her back to the recovery efforts in March 2014. Ray offered ideas for how survivors could let out their pain. Journals. Counseling. Trips to the site, for those who wanted to go, and felt strong enough to be there.

“I know for a fact we never would have gotten through this without her,” Pszonka said. “There’s no way.”

With time, the group became like a new second family. They’d hold barbecues and celebrate each other’s birthdays.

Holidays have been the hardest times. This year Pszonka made plans to dish out Thanksgiving dinner to seniors at the center in Arlington. It was the favorite holiday of her daughter, Katie, 34. Pszonka has searched for positive ways to cope.

“There’s nothing we can do to change the loss of our families, but we can do things in their names to help others,” she said. “We thought maybe if we turned it around a bit, it would help us — not to forget, but to put it on the back burner.”

Once it gets cold, the Oso families deliver hot food, blankets, hats and gloves to the homeless in the north half of the county. Some are seniors living in their cars. Some are addicts who walk in the door high. Ray doesn’t judge. People can come into the center for food, a cup of coffee, or a place to warm up.

Staff will provide clothing and toiletries. They’ll pay for rent in an emergency, or utilities if they’re about to be shut off; they’ll help people to build a resume; and they’ll connect them to resources that can help them to get sober, housed and employed.

Jenell Broers, 21, left a drug house a couple years ago because of bad roommates, she said. She moved out, spent her rent money on outdoor gear and camped in a tent off Mountain Loop Highway. She lived like that for months until she got pregnant with a baby boy. Not knowing where to turn next, she went to the Arlington center with her boyfriend. Ray helped to set her up with a home, furniture, food and job training.

“We had nothing, no bed, no nothing,” Broers said. “My life is totally different from when I met (Ray).”

Over 50 people were housed through the center this summer, Ray said. In a sense, it still has the same mission it did right after the slide: to help those who feel heartbroken and hopeless.

Ray repeats a phrase often: “Your DNA does not define your future.” She knows that first-hand. She has been in the shoes of many of her clients. She dabbled in drugs through high school. She and her mother lost their home in southern California when she was 14. Every day at school she would ask friends if she could stay the night with them.

“Where am I going to shower?” Ray recalled worrying. “Where am I going to brush my teeth? Where’s my next meal going to come from?”

Like Broers, she got pregnant as a teen. She realized she needed to make a change. She didn’t want her kids, or anyone else, to have to live the way she did. Last year Ray went to a tattoo parlor with a woman who lost a sister in the slide, to have a word written across her wrist in cursive: “Hope.”

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; chutton@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.

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