On a stifling June afternoon, wind whips down Westlake Avenue mixing withered leaves and woodchips in front of The Giving Tree workshop, where the door is ajar. Inside, two long-time volunteers work urgently to complete what will be their final projects at the volunteer-based woodshop managed by the Archdiocesan Housing Authority (AHA).
In March, AHA notified volunteers that the shop would be closing due to a paucity of funds. Volunteers were given until June 30 to find other means to finance the shop. On June 3, the AHA rescinded this deadline, abruptly closing the shop to all but a few volunteers. It is a move that has left volunteers befuddled and distraught, coping with the loss of a place that has helped them to heal and grow.
Wallace "Wally" Wise, 85, is legally blind and uses a cane. Before beginning his tenure at the Giving Tree 16 years ago, Wise was working on restoring a 40-foot power boat, but because of the onset of blindness, he reluctantly acknowledged that he could not finish the project. He arrived at the shop on Westlake looking for a place to volunteer, and found that "every toy looked like a two-by-four on wheels," he laughs. "I saw a place even for my amateur talents."
As we speak, he places the finishing touches on a toy wooden skiff, his adept craftsmanship belying his blindness.
The Giving Tree has always had a "strong community despite the constant turnover [of volunteers]," Wise tells me. Despite the transitory nature of many volunteers, Wise comments that "we always tried to fold volunteers into a family."
Eleven years ago, John Webster came into this fold. Webster too testifies to its value. "I was always reclusive," Webster remarks, "and I didn't value social interaction." In speaking, Webster shows me a shelf chock-full of his wooden inventions. A catapult, a propeller intended to catch the wind: these are contraptions that reflect the special imagination of the maker.
Webster draws my eye to an effigy of Pinocchio. He has been perfecting Pinocchio on and off for eight years. With its movable arms and meticulously sanded surfaces, the model is flawless. "I would get stuck on some part, and put [Pinocchio] aside," says Webster. "But I'd always come back to him." Webster exclaims affably that, despite his reclusive tendencies, The Giving Tree "provided opportunities for engagement at my own level of comfort. I have learned how to be more receptive to people."
Opened in 1989, The Giving Tree was created initially as a resource for the residents of St. Martin's on Westlake, the AHA-managed permanent housing property for homeless men. Volunteers pursued personal woodworking projects, but they also crafted toys to donate to needy children. The shop provided a means for the men to foster self-worth. Over the years, the uses of The Giving Tree have evolved. Volunteers now include individuals fulfilling community service as well as members of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).
While many volunteers have found the expectations of the mainstream workplace unforgiving, volunteer Shelby Smith says that "at The Giving Tree, we find ourselves perfectly satisfactory." Despite not having use of her right arm, which is amputated above the elbow, Smith has worked in the woodshop for two years. Smith praises the "restorative nature of the work," emphasizing the benefit of "working with others who are also broken in some way."
But shelter and housing take precedence over the workshop, says Flo Beaumon, Associate Director of Special Ministries with AHA. The place "has a lot of heart and soul," Beaumon says, "and I appreciate its role in the community," but its closure is necessary so that "we can continue supporting the thousands of homeless assisted by other AHA programs" across Western Washington.
In mid-May, Smith was among three volunteers who were given the title of Volunteer Interim Manager by the AHA when the only paid employee at the Giving Tree was reassigned. Smith states that she was encouraged to pursue potential funding alternatives, and volunteers were given until June 30 to do so. Smith contacted the media to raise awareness of the situation. Yet when King 5 News and the Seattle Times arrived outside The Giving Tree on June 3, Smith says Beaumon had locked the doors.
"Volunteers were initially told by the AHA to seek out potential financial sponsors," says Smith, "but then the message shifted to one of 'closure is imminent.' Regardless, we thought we had until June 30th."
Beaumon says the abrupt closure had nothing to do with the potential media attention, only that "we didn't have a paid staff person working there anymore. Ultimately, we decided this was necessary." When asked about the Volunteer Interim Manager position, Beaumon replies, "It just didn't work out."
"The whole process has lacked communication," says a despondent Smith. "It has been disconcerting and destabilizing."
The Giving Tree is now closed permanently for inventory. The AHA will be holding a final sale of the remaining wooden toys at the workshop's storefront on Fri., June 19 and Sat., June 20 at 2008 Westlake Avenue.