We knew something good was coming.
We knew it when Harry Anderson smiled and took the mic at a recent SPiN event. His powerful words from that night are copied below. But first, a little context.
Harry writes the “Rockin’ a Hard Place” column for our local Whidbey News Times, a regular gift to readers that lifts up our unique island community with gentle humor and plain spoken truth.
But Harry got a little spicy that night.
Harry has volunteered for SPiN since the early years of the original location on Bayshore. Serving meals to SPiN guests got him hooked. He’s been a supporter with his time and dollars ever since.
“What impressed me most,” he says today, “was, and still is, the way SPiN treats guests with dignity. The meals weren’t just ‘get in line, grab a tray, slop, here’s your food, go eat, move on.’ No, we served those dinners on real tablecloths with real plates and real menus, brought to your table by volunteer wait staff. A little dignity, even if it’s just for an hour at dinner, is so important to SPiN guests. It sets that hour apart from most everything else they do, everywhere else they go in their lives.”
Harry struggles to understand the voices in our town who rail against SPiN, its mission and its guests. His words on that recent evening named that spirit as “unkind, ungenerous, and oblivious.”
“Oblivious is the hardest one to take,” he says, a few days after delivering those words. “It’s a choice to be oblivious. People refuse to see the reasons for the struggles of others. They refuse to see others’ humanity. They see homeless, struggling people as not like me, not from here, not worthy.”
It’s a choice, Harry says, to feel that way. It’s intentional. People can choose to open their minds, and when some choose not to, it pains him. But Harry hopes along with the rest of us for a big step, a concrete step, that we’ve sought for years.
“A permanent location will change so much,” Harry says, meaning a place with a commercial kitchen, laundry, showers, and space for SPiN guests and community members to meet. “We’d be more visible, a positive influence in our town. Then we could work on changing people’s minds.”
Now that, friends, is a vision we can all choose to get behind.
Here are Harry’s words to that recent SPiN gathering:
“You may know that I write a monthly column for the Whidbey News-Times and South Whidbey Record called ‘Rockin’ a Hard Place,’ in which I make some hopefully interesting and humorous observations about life here on this Rock called Whidbey Island.
“So let me start by saying I don’t live in Oak Harbor but I really enjoy poking a little fun at the Rock’s only big town, which may sometimes consider itself the center of the known universe. Here are three quick examples. I sometimes call Oak Harbor ‘Burger ’n Friesville’ because it offers so many places to get those things — either dining in or driving through. And, not long ago Oak Harbor seemed incapable of figuring out how much a new sewage treatment plant might cost. I guess the folks in charge thought it would somehow be flushed out eventually — and boy was it ever. And last but not least, Oak Harbor just can’t seem to decide if it wants a free gift worth half a million bucks in the form of a tall sculpture by an internationally renowned artist because, well, the town’s still in deep mourning for that old rotten windmill they tore down.
“Oh, my dear Oak Harbor, you are the gift that just keeps on giving me great stuff to poke fun at.
”But there’s also a serious side to this.
“Let’s not forget what a lot of Oak Harbor folks did to SPiN Cafe when it was located down on Bayshore. Some people insisted for years that it had to be shut it down permanently in order to get rid of ‘them.’ They made all kinds of complaints, my favorite being that all those hungry people who lined up for dinner at SPiN each afternoon had somehow come by bus or truck that day from Seattle. There was actually a straight-faced claim made that Oak Harbor has no local homeless or hungry people.
“That’s a side of this town I really don’t like — unkind, ungenerous and oblivious.
“But the irony, of course, is at the same time Oak Harbor also has so many compassionate people who deeply care about the less fortunate, like all of you in this room tonight. In addition to SPiN, there are the Garage of Blessings, the North Whidbey Help House, the Haven and Island Thrift — all doing wonderful work. And at last count there were at least 35 churches here in Oak Harbor doing good things, including St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, where I belong and which has proudly offered our parish hall as a day shelter for SPiN guests for the past year.
“I have been a supporter of SPiN for at least eight years. I brought food to the original location on Bayshore and I volunteered to help in the kitchen there a few times. I wrote a column for the paper about that grand, never realized plan to open a much bigger SPiN Cafe and day shelter in a nearby building on Bayshore, complete with showers and bathrooms. Doesn’t that now seem like an idea from long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away?
“After the Bayshore cafe closed, St. Stephen’s was one of the local churches that stepped up to offer a space to provide free dinner meals to those who could get there. We often had a dozen or more guests. I volunteered to help serve those meals. I even got my Washington State food handler’s card — after I took an online test and aced it!
“What I admire so much about SPiN is its deeply felt ethic — to treat all guests with dignity and respect. When I worked the dinners, I invited each guest to come and sit down at a table, and I offered them some water or coffee. No keep-it-moving cafeteria line, no plastic trays, no silent anonymity. I would tell each guest what was on the menu that evening and ask them what they would like, then I would bring it to them on real dinner plates with real forks and knives. I would watch as guests enjoyed their meals and the social interaction with others. They often spent an hour or more after dinner before departing, often for the Haven overnight shelter.
“I should mention that I also volunteered as a host at the Haven, where I had more opportunities to chat with guests before they went to bed for the night. I learned a lot about why some of them became homeless — loss of a job, bad ending of a relationship, an eviction, an addiction, incarceration, no health insurance for needed medical care. There were as many stories as there were guests, and so many of them were heartbreaking. As a side note, I gave up volunteering at the Haven awhile ago because I’m just too old to stay awake all night!
“So, hopefully all this tells you how much I love what SPiN does. And I am here tonight to tell you that I am more eager than ever to continue supporting its good work — with my money and my time”.