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Couple walks their talk by living simply | On the Verge
Editor’s note: Juli Morser and Janie Starr are writing this series to put a face on the growing number of Islanders barely getting by — friends and neighbors who are living on the verge of losing their homes, getting laid off, going hungry, becoming homeless. Many, however, have also been helped by many community organizations — and as a result are now on the verge of buying a home, getting a job or going back to school.
I first met Michele and Johnnie Pratt at Vashon Thriftway, when we were all volunteering for a food drive, then again at the “O” Space where they now work part-time as the Space Genies. We reconnected at the Vashon Maury Community Food Bank, where they shop to make ends meet, and again at Welcome Vashon’s We All Belong event, where Michele offered to spearhead an alternative currency exchange.
Recently, against the cacophony of cascading coffee beans at Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie, Michele and Johnnie shared the series of adventures that led them toward what they now call a life of voluntary simplicity on Vashon.
Michele, 56, describes Johnnie as a 52-year-old who looks like “a 20-year-old” — an “earthy woodsman with a big smile, dreads to his shoulders, a scruffy beard, … astute and connected to everything, with a memory that won’t quit.”
Johnnie, who is African American, had been reluctant to date white women but was captivated by Michele’s long red mane (now grayish-blond), blue eyes and lively spirit. He likes that she’s a hard worker and earthy in a light way.
They met almost 12 years ago in San Francisco, where they were both immersed in the nonprofit world, he as logistics coordinator for such events as the California AIDSRide and she as a consultant to food banks and disabled youth programs.
Determined to live closer to the land, they left their careers and began a nomadic period, crisscrossing the country and picking up vital skills along the way — such as organic farming, jam-making and housing construction. They lost jobs and faced homelessness many times but always managed to find shelter and eke out a living, while holding true to their values.
Three years ago, they made a commitment to weave a purposeful, off-the-grid life, and last year they further embraced that vision by becoming certified through Sustainable Tacoma in permaculture design, a holistic agricultural system in which everything is used and nothing wasted.
Eventually they found their way to Vashon, intending to stay a few weeks at a friend’s modest beach cabin. According to Michele, Jenn Coe, the food bank’s farm coordinator, “saved our lives” as they were desperate for a local food source. Michele wanted to farm for food, so Jenn referred them to Island farmer Karen Biondo, and their luck turned. They parked their nomadic life at La Biondo Farm & Kitchen and forged a new partnership: They now farm, help Karen with her goats, chickens and pigs, assist with her catering business and maintain Sustainable Vashon’s No Trash Stash (dishes and silverware available to the community for gatherings and events). They also have begun construction of a 200 square-foot multi-purpose structure made from scrap lumber and other reclaimed materials.
Initially, Johnnie didn’t think they’d last. At Gallery Cruise, he couldn’t get out of the car because he felt too uncomfortable (translate: stocky black man with dreads, earrings and an unkempt look).
“One day, I was standing right outside here, when a woman pulled up in her convertible, got out of the car, took one look at me, went back, put the top up, looked at me again, locked the doors, looked at me again, twice.
“Another time, a man came up to me and said, ‘What are you doing on this Island? Because you don’t belong here.’”
I asked Johnnie how he squares the Island’s reputation as liberal and inclusive with the experiences he’s had. “I don’t. … I hold people accountable. … We’ve made a pact; when something happens we have to address it in the moment, even if it’s uncomfortable. I have to ask, ‘What is the assumption you’re making?’”
Johnnie and Michele walk their talk — giving back, working for trade, resilient in the face of adversity. They have become fully integrated into Vashon’s farming, sustainability and nonprofit communities, and, despite the odds, they are here to stay.
When I sought their advice for others living on the verge, Johnnie pounced, “Ask for what you need. Check out VashonAll and Free- cycle. Grow your own food. Read The Beachcomber.” That’s how they learned that the Presbyterian Church was offering free firewood, which got them through the winter as their only heat source.
Once Michele had to use the Vashon Health Center to the tune of $150. Then, ever resourceful, they discovered Full Circle Wellness Center’s reduced-fee program, as well as other practitioners who charge based on ability to pay. They’re also studying medicinal herbs.
When I probed for final words of wisdom, they volleyed back and forth:
M: “Read Breakfast at Sally’s. Like in the book, if you’ve only got $10 and see someone who needs gas, you give them $5 because you know it’ll come back.”
J: “Your silence will not protect you… If you don’t speak up, there will be no one left to speak up in the end.”
M: “It’s funny; the way we’re conducting our lives gets affirmed all the time. We are living our dream, right here and now.”
J: “Stand in the right place, and, as Oprah says, ‘Live your best life.’”
Anyone who knows these two would agree that they already are.
— Janie Starr is an Islander active with Sustainable Vashon and Welcome Vashon.