Vashon resident is honored for her years of work on behalf of Island youth

Maryam Steffen was recently honored for her commitment to the Island
Maryam Steffen was recently honored for her commitment to the Island's youth.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

Maryam Steffen, an Islander who has been active for years in a range of efforts to empower teens, was recognized for her contributions last week with a new award created by two youth-centered Vashon organizations.

Vashon Youth & Family Services and the Vashon Healthy Community Network gave Steffen the first annual Marian Fitch Volunteer of the Year Award, named for a longtime Islander who was active in many Island social services and political causes during her 62 years on Vashon Island. Fitch, who died in 2008 at the age of 88, was a founder of VYFS and served on its board for nearly three decades.

Stephen Silha, an Islander who has worked with Steffen since 2003 to host Vashon’s much-celebrated youth-adult dialogues, said the award couldn’t have gone to a more deserving person.

“Maryam is totally devoted to improving the lives of Island youth,” Silha said.

At the same time, he said, Steffen’s selection for the award was somewhat unexpected.

“She’s just so irreverent,” he said. “She’s not the good girl who usually gets the honor.”

Indeed, many Islanders who have worked with Steffen describe her in terms of her fearless and outspoken nature.

“She’s got a lot of spunk,” said Stephen Bogan, an Island mental health and substance abuse counselor. “She doesn’t hold back in terms of letting folks know what she thinks.”

“She shows up for young people and is willing to speak the truth,” said Harris Levinson, a Vashon High School teacher.

Steffen, 68, is an energetic white-haired woman with a no-nonsense haircut and a fiercely intelligent gaze that peers out over multi-colored reading glasses. Over the years, she said during a recent interview, she has volunteered for several Island organizations and initiatives, including Development of Island Teens, Vashon Youth Council and the Vashon Island Prevention and Intervention Team.

Through her work with these organizations, she has also been a vocal supporter of the Island’s gay, lesbian and bisexual youth.

In 2004, she and her late husband George produced an acclaimed local production of “The Laramie Project,” a play that chronicles the story of Matthew Shepard, a gay youth who was murdered in Laramie, Wyo., in 1998. The play was directed by her son, Eli Steffen, who now works at a Seattle youth empowerment organization, Power of Hope.

According to Steffen, dedication to service is something that runs in her family.

“I come from an upper middle class family, and I grew up in San Francisco in the 1960s.” she said, adding that her “journey has always included the value of being of service. Being of service is a value I have hammered into my own children, too. The nuclear family was not our focus — it was on reaching out to others.”

Steffen had a 30-year career as a psychologist, working both for social service agencies and in private practice on the East and West Coasts. The bulk of her work, she said, was in helping families in crisis.

Motherhood began to intervene in Steffen’s career when she started her own family at the age of 35, and in 1992, Steffen’s professional life ended when she moved to Vashon with her husband and their growing brood of four sons.

Shortly after her arrival, spurred in part by the challenges of raising her own children, Steffen began to get involved in youth causes on the Island.

“I was sort of ubiquitous,” she said. “I would know ahead of time about things that were happening with young people.”

She said all her work with youth has been driven by a firm belief in open and respectful intergenerational communication.

“I’ve learned so much from working with youth — I’ve learned how to listen, think outside the box, re-examine my own prejudices and foster rebellion,” she said. “That’s what young people do. They are always pushing the limits and exploring new way to do things.”

Daniel Macca, communications and outreach director at VYFS, says Steffen exemplifies the Island’s spirit of volunteerism.

“She’s not only passionate, but she also rolls up her sleeves,” he said

Indeed, she’s famous among some for her homemade chili, something she served up at many of the 19 youth-adult dialogues she and Silha hosted over the years.

And although the youth-adult dialogues are now in hiatus, Steffen said her work with young people will continue.

She noted, with a hint of steel in her voice, that when she was notified that she was the winner of the Marian Fitch Award, she was told a $100 honorarium came with the prize, and that she could use it, if she liked, by having a day at a spa.

“I told them that’s not what I do,” she said.

Instead, she said, she plans to use the money to start a new youth project — getting young people involved at the Vashon Maury Community Food Bank or helping young women obtain medical services on the Island.

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