Opinion

Vashon Community Care: Recalling the ‘Christmas Miracle’ of 15 years ago

Editor’s Note: We asked Ted Kutscher, who volunteered in the earliest stages of the effort to preserve skilled nursing care on Vashon, about his perspective and impressions concerning the “Christmas Miracle” that kept Vashon Community Care’s doors open 15 years ago. This is his response.

I have always believed the term “Christmas Miracle” was a bit too sentimental to describe what happened during that auspicious December 15 years ago. As I recall it, we simply had a duty and challenge to keep the nursing home on Vashon when the outlook was bleak.

The people involved worked inventively and doggedly to make it happen, not unlike what has occurred with Preserve Our Islands and the gravel pit. To the extent that marvelous things happened, and they did, I believe that the true “miracle” came in the form of an organization called “Providence” (specifically, the Sisters of Providence organization in West Seattle) and the donors who stepped forward.

For those who weren’t here or don’t remember, here’s a brief recap of the do-or-die events that kept skilled care on Vashon.

When word went out around Thanks-giving 1995 that Island Manor — a nursing home in the old farmhouse on the highway — would close in one month, 75 to 100 interested Islanders, many of them with mothers or fathers at Island Manor, gathered at the Happy Garden restaurant on a Sunday afternoon.

It was a spectacle of community activism. In advance of that meeting, Dave Vogel (I believe with the teamwork of Mike Gonsalves and Pat Cummings) had asked me to meet with Jim Alexander, who owned and operated the nursing home, to see what I could do. I had an idea: Would Jim rent to us as a nonprofit corporation? He responded, understandably, that a new nonprofit with no money would be an implausible tenant and operator. I countered that the idea of having lease guarantors — Islanders who could step in with money — was a way to provide capital where none existed. To his credit, Jim accepted the concept and put it in writing: If we had 30 guarantors by Dec. 15, 1995, he’d rent us the property with an option to buy.

The following weekend we called a meeting at St. John Vianney to sign up guarantors. Mike and I explained the concept. Key to its success, we told them, was to get 30 guarantors to pledge their personal credit of up to $10,000. I recall thinking, as I stood before the quiet and justifiably skeptical audience, that this was going to be a big flop. The challenge was to get a first guarantor. We said to the audience: “It’s now or never” and “Here are the forms.” The room was silent for a good 30 seconds, and I thought to myself, well, we gave it a try; we can give up with clear consciences.

Then a guy got up in the back, looked at his wife and said, “We’ll do it.” I hadn’t met Ted and Vicki Clabaugh before, but we would get to know each other well. I credit Ted and Vicki as the first public patriots of the care center, the first to really put it on the line. Since then they have devoted countless hours and have probably been VCC’s longest and most consistent supporters.

Jim had told us it would be difficult to survive financially as a nursing home on the Island, and he turned out to be right. Our board had talent, energy and dedication, but many of us were new to the skilled care industry. Frankly, while I could do law and finance, I had no idea we had landed on Planet Regulation, rivaling the nuclear power industry!

Luckily for us, Kimberly Scheer, an Islander who had worked at Providence Mount St. Vincent in West Seattle, convinced her colleagues to cross the moat and come to our aid. Out of nowhere, it seemed, we had an alliance of exceptional experience and talent. Our original director group soon learned that Chuck Hawley, an upper-level manager at Providence, was a class act and national expert in skilled care administration. The Mount’s philosophy about quality and respect in caregiving was completely parallel with ours. Ultimately our survival was guided by Hawley and Charlene Boyd, the administrator at Mount St. Vincent.

I look back now with a 15-year perspective and see there were critical moments when donations and financial sacrifice made all the difference. Each one of the 30 guarantors was vital because we just cleared the time deadline by a few minutes. I remember calling Jim shortly after the deadline and telling him we had 31 guarantors!

But the miracle, such as it was, didn’t stop there. A few years later, when we were raising money for construction and financing of the new facility, Jim and Marge Beardsley and Ray and Edith Aspiri made gifts that made the project possible. There was also the $25,000 loan by an Island couple (I promised never to provide their names) that allowed us to make payroll in the summer of 1996. Imagine if we had closed down because of not being able to pay staff.

We were blessed to be able to preserve quality care on the Island despite the challenges we faced in December 1995. I believe similar and new challenges will continue as the care center’s directors and Island citizens work to keep quality care on Vashon.

Such will be the ongoing mission of all of us.

— Islander Ted Kutscher is an attorney, financial planner and painter.

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