by Katheryn Fentress
Mary Trask was born and raised in the Midwest and moved to Washington 20 years ago. This summer, she and her family relocated to Bellingham. She recently organized a local drive to send bikes to Africa.
Kathryn: Have you done other volunteer work before the bicycle project?
Mary: Yes. I have a deep desire in me to be of service, even when I was a child. In 1979, my husband Bob set up a nonprofit called ARAS, which stands for Acceptance, Respect, Affection and Support: the key elements of a healthy relationship (www.arasfoundation.org). I joined in 1980 and morphed the focus into a community service angle. I am most fulfilled and happiest doing community work so it became my “baby.” Over the years, I would listen for ideas that could use an intervention. We generated many opportunities from beginning to end, and other times we supported the projects of other agencies in the community. I am comfortable in leadership positions or as a volunteer.
We settled in Sammamish, a community with a higher standard of living than what I was accustomed to, and higher than Bellingham. My daughter was an only child so I supported her in a variety of activities such as Girl Scouts and PSA. I soon realized that kids there didn’t really have any idea of the real world. So I created a program for the elementary school as a way of engaging kids in volunteer projects. I created a menu of options and asked the kids in K-6 classrooms what they would like to do the most. I believe that people are basically good and want to help but don’t know how to or feel they don’t have anything to offer. The menu allowed us to match the kid with projects that turned them on. The kids loved it so I created a large notebook, the Lean on Me Program. The word got out about the school project and soon other community organizations like the Boy Scouts, church groups, and service clubs asked to borrow the book. The book contained resources, ideas for projects and hints about how to make things work well.
Kathryn: I love the idea of the Resource Book because it empowers other people and groups to engage so your efforts ripple out and continue even after you leave the community. How did the bike drive come about?
Ten years ago, an older woman gave me an old-fashioned bike with the upright handle bars and comfortable seat. It was worn but was so much better for my body to ride. I loved it! That Christmas, my husband gave me a new cherry red bike of the same design. So then I had this older well-used bike that I wanted to do something helpful with. One day I saw a little article about an Africa Bicycle to Ghana project. At that moment, I knew I wanted my bike to go to Ghana. The head of the program was in Idaho and I called him. He directed me to a group in Seattle that would be loading bikes in a container for Ghana in a couple of weeks. I started calling people I knew and soon had 12 bikes and everybody was really excited with no notice time.
I decided then to go for a bigger drive, coordinating again with the leader of the program. We have sent over 7,000 bikes in ten years from Sammamish. I did my first bike drive here in Bellingham in June. We connected with all the police departments for unclaimed bikes. We collected 250 bikes and several hundred bike parts with 39 volunteers and people seemed to like it.
However, I am not sure I will do this again. I found out that many people here in town donate bikes to Sterling Bike Works. They have a program to teach at-risk youth to repair them and then donate them to kids who can’t afford them. Most of the nine bicycle shops in town support Sterling Bike Works (go to www.sterlingbikeworks.org). These bikes stay here in the community. I think there is room for both, donations local and away. The Bikes to Africa project (go to www.bikesforafrica.net) is now expanding to Sierra Leone. At least 90,000 bikes have gone to Africa and local people have been taught how to teach others in their communities how to maintain their bikes. These bikes have had a huge impact on the economy and the social order, empowering women, in particular. You can check bike projects on You Tube. My favorite is one about a nurse who had to walk all day everyday to deliver medicines and now can ride her bike the long distances.
When we moved up here, my husband and daughter asked me to take a year off before diving deeply into new projects, to find a better balance between family and volunteer work. I have done a few things besides the bike project. Bob is minister at the Unity Spiritual Center and hopes that it can become a hub of service projects in the community. We have a monthly food drive at the church. We have an outreach committee that has been involved with the Interfaith Coalition and coat drives for people at the Mission. Beyond this, I am not sure yet where or how I will connect with the community. I love Bellingham and we are so happy here. People seem to really care about the environment. The Volunteer Center is also really wonderful. The good news is that a ton of people are already doing things. It is just that I have to figure out where I fit in.
Kathryn: So how are you doing with finding the balance?
I have been focusing on putting our house and yard in good order. By spring, I will be chomping at the bit. I will post any projects on the www.volunteermatch.org website. I can be reached directly through email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kathryn: What you do to fill your own cup?
I am blessed to be surrounded by so many dear friends who support me. My friend Kelly helps keep me from getting over-committed. By knowing I am making a difference and being around people who are also really excited about making a difference keeps me inspired.
Kathryn: What message do you have for our readers?
I think we are really effective when we come from the heart. I would tell parents that your kids are never too young to be involved in community efforts, even if it just to smile at older people, to do simple acts of kindness. When people thank me, I thank them back for their involvement and remind them that every slice of the pie and every person is important. There are so many distractions now, I think we have to practice coming back to center and I think community service brings us back to the center. We can make a difference every day. We do things because of our passions to share our gifts rather than the outcome. We can’t focus too much on the results but on the process. We have an obligation to our children and our world.
Kathryn: Thank you and welcome to Bellingham. You have so much enthusiasm and experience to share. I trust you will find the special calling, the spark here in this community for you.