Aspire to inspire

gil rubio

Gil Rubio plays lead guitar, sings and composes much of the music for his band Red Beans & Rice. (Photograph: Edie Ellis)

By Gil Rubio

Some time ago, a dear friend of mine posted that she had attended a
Celebration of Life for a friend of hers.
She said it was most remarkable in that each and every person of the
many who spoke, described him as  … “Kind”.

Somehow that thought touched me in a profound way …

How would I, or any of us, be remembered?
What one word would describe us?
What one word would describe what we had done in our Life,
or how we affected those around us, or the World around us?

Given that thought, how does it change the way you carry yourself?
Or does it?

Just a few weeks ago, I spoke of my lifelong friend at his Memorial Mass.

He was a Carpenter and a Musician. Growing up, we were both Altar Boys
in our Church, and we played in a few Bands together over the years.
Mark had a long Marriage and he and his Wife raised two very
respectful and thoughtful children. He loved his Family and his
Friends, and the Church was full of people of all different walks of
life to pay their respects. A testament to how many he had touched
somehow throughout his life.

As I spoke of my friend and brother, I thought of several one word
descriptions of him: Kind, Strong, Gentle, Talented, Funny, Faithful,
Loyal, Family, Brother, Friend, True …

Some of us are destined to do great things and have great accomplishments.
But that doesn’t describe the person we are.

We may solve the most pressing problem the World over,
but yet and still, what kind of person were we to achieve that?

Compassionate, Clever, Genius, Inspiring, Patient, Demanding, Driven …

Some of us see ourselves as Funny, yet in reality others see us as Sarcastic …
Condescending, Annoying, Obnoxious …

gil rubio poster

Gil Rubio and his band Red Beans & Rice played at the inaugural Monterey International Blues Festival on May 13, 2017. (Photograph: Tom G. O’Neal)

It is not how we see ourselves that matters.
It is what we project to the World around us through our Actions.
How we are perceived from the other side.

Some do wonderful and gracious things,
but only for the recognition that they will garner,
rather than for the right reason.

Doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do,
… Regardless of any notice being taken.

One would hope that we have done well in our lives, are grateful,
have a loving family and good friends, and left a good impression and
a lasting mark somehow.

We can’t all save the World or create the most beautiful Art.
We don’t all possess the same talents and can’t all do the same things.
Maybe we can never leave a physical and tangible mark in the World.

But we can all spread light from within and encourage each other.

We can Aspire to Inspire.

Maybe our Smile, our gift of Love, our willingness to help another
will be our greatest accomplishment.

If there is indeed a Judgment Day for us, I think that no matter what
our beliefs are,
it is more about what we do “with”, “to” and “for” our brothers and
sisters on the planet that we share,
that will ultimately be what we are judged by.

I would hope that means we treat each other with kindness and respect
while we tolerate each other’s point of view.

No matter what our accomplishments are and what we have achieved in life,
perhaps our greatest achievement is to be thought of, and remembered
as … Kind.


From the author: I will be turning 60 in September, and with each passing year, I am
more grateful for all of Life itself! Each day is precious and a blessing, and I am grateful for the opportunity to try and be a better person each day. I’m sure I fail miserably a lot, but I still try to start my day with a big bowl of Gratitude and No Expectations on the side.

I am grateful to still be Operations Manager at Ryan Ranch Printers in Monterey, California, where I teach 5th & 10th Grade Catechism, serve as an English lector and lead a bilingual choir at the church I grew up in. I am also the leader and principal songwriter of Red Beans & Rice, a blues-inspired, New Orleans-influenced band in its 24th year with 6 CD releases to its credit. I am proud to say we are currently working on our 7th release.

Editor’s note: “Kind” is a word that would aptly describe my cousin Gil, the youngest of three children born to my godmother Aunt Lupe (my mother’s oldest sister) and her late husband Salvador. Gil’s spiritual side and his gift of just the right words inspires me to aspire to be a better person.  

Tomorrow: Nike Bentley, Finding Abby




Luigi is mine

By Elizabeth Hovde

Hood River Waterfront Park was where we landed for Mother’s Day, per my find-sand tradition. After a day of sand, river and spinning dangerously fast on the park’s merry-go-round, my boys still had enough energy for a loud, chaotic drive home.

We stopped for “dinner,” which ended up being a kid-friendly dining experience so I could avoid the side of drama that comes with a sit-down meal at an adult-friendly restaurant. Finding it humorous that I was about to eat fast food on the holiday that Hallmark and brunch-serving restaurants took over from the serious roots planted by ancient cultures and Anna Jarvis, I decided I deserved a Mother’s Day present: Luigi be thy name. He came in my Happy Meal.

My boys are apparently too cool and too big now for “little kid” Happy Meals. They got bacon cheeseburgers, fries and shakes. But they were eyeing my Luigi, a fictional character featured in Nintendo games and the brother of Mario. And shortly after we left the parking lot, one of my sons asked if he could have Luigi. I was a bit shocked how quickly I said, “No. Luigi is mine.”


My Happy Meal, my Luigi.

Being a mom has given me much. Aside from all the deep stuff, such as the incredible joy of raising two boys, parenthood’s lesson about unconditional love, and receiving hugs and nose kisses, I got access to a closer parking spot at the mall in the early years. I never used it. I hate malls and go less than once a year; always forgetting about the privilege until walking by the thoughtful parking space with my squirrelly boys in hand. But I had access. Membership has its privileges.

A big blessing was gaining several mom friends. I enjoyed a lot of play dates and hours of friend time in the boys’ toddler and preschool years. These days, we’re primarily Christmas card and fridge friends. (Fridge friends are those whose pictures adorn the kitchen appliance in your home.) All of the parents I spent valuable time with in my kids’ 0-5 years are busy, like me, being taxis for or accommodating preteens who prefer to play in their basements on xBoxes, rather than having in-person events at parks and in homes.

Motherhood also brought me the gift of hours of unrushed yard work over the years. After all, you might not be able to work efficiently with kids awake and present; I can’t. And you might not be able to clean your house successfully with children enjoying every clean space you just made. For years, I couldn’t have a conversation or even complete one sentence or thought before being summonsed to a maybe-emergency just around the corner; but I could pull weeds — a lot of them. You can stay in the yard all day, especially if you have a fence around it.

One of my boys was concerned recently about the padlock on our fence’s gate. “It’s not working,” he said. “People might get in!” I told him not to worry and explained that the fence locks we had around our property were there to keep him and his brother in; they weren’t really there to keep people who wanted to get in out. I could see that he felt a little betrayed. I had altered his worldview.

Being a mom has also taken much. It takes your freedom immediately. I remember how weird it was going from being someone who could run to the store whenever she wanted to having to build that activity into a schedule that worked around feedings and naps. Now, I usually use school hours to get the job done. Thank you for work and household chore time, taxpayers!

Living in Divorcelandia, parenthood has meant holding off on career and relationship goals, as I strive to keep my boys’ childhoods as free of further change as I can. As I resist jobs or relationships that would bring large-scale change, my kids aren’t resisting life’s shifts. My older son has given up hugs for nearly two years. Nose kisses from him are definitely out.

Being a mom is now taking away joy — joy that motherhood brought. I was feeling the weight of all that on Mother’s Day. And I needed Luigi to be mine.

Parents who have gone before me said these days would come. They’re here. Until I figure out how to better adjust, I might need more Luigis.



Lost Lake is an annual summer outing for We Three Hovdes and yurt E1 or E7 our vacation home. Very little sand at the lake; lots of dirt.

Elizabeth Hovde writes a Sunday opinion column for The Oregonian. Since newspapers are “changing,” she freelances for nonprofits, edits books and writes press releases about growlers. Cheers to VOA, an opportunity to write about something that doesn’t fit into a press release or column. 

Editor’s note: For several years at The Oregonian, I was Elizabeth’s editor. I got to know her writing style, her politics, her values, her personality and sense of humor. Perhaps more than any writer I know, she is genuine and honest. It’s always a pleasure having her contribute to VOA, both as a writer and prolific commenter.

Tomorrow: Gil Rubio, Aspire to inspire


Life is not a science experiment


A giraffe bends low for water at a game preserve outside Durban, South Africa. “This giraffe impressed me. His knees work better than mine.” — Molly Holsapple

By Molly Holsapple

It’s been 5 years since I retired from a career that I loved but that consumed most of my time and energy.  Since retirement, I have exchanged a daily van ride to Salem for the chance to hone my expertise in using TriMet to explore every part of Portland.  I had found the right balance in life, splitting my time between keeping fit, enjoying my friends, local adventures, being in two book groups, volunteering in two grade schools, and doing just enough consultant work to fund one big trip a year.

In the last year that balance has disappeared and I find myself thinking about a science experiment on expansion and contraction from Mr. Harris’s 4th grade class.  Do you remember the one?

Put a balloon on an empty soda bottle…heat the bottle and the air molecules expand blowing up the balloon…then put the bottle in ice water and the air molecules contract and the balloon reduces in size enough to fit inside the bottle. 

That grade-school experiment could very well define my life during the past year.  Last summer began with a left knee replacement that caused me to spend time in a hospital and rehab facility and has confined me for months at a time in my house.

As someone who is accustomed to independence and variety in her daily life, the physical ordeal of recovering from major surgery meant I was trading in those freedoms for a longer-than-anticipated period of dependence and routine. Being forced to stay indoors as I recuperated was a soul-crushing experience that made me, at times feel very downhearted.

But my international and domestic travels brought out the adventurer in me. And now that a full year has gone by, I am able to see how my life expanded and contracted just like the balloon on the empty soda bottle.


My life deflates to inside the bottle

The doctor’s projections after my June 2016 surgery were that I would go home and with physical therapy I could expect to be back to my old lifestyle in around 6 months.  Those projections became a different reality when as a result of a weaker right leg, I was unable to walk up 5 stairs on the third day in the hospital.

A social worker visited my room to tell me that because I could not climb stairs I could not go home.  I had one day to identify a rehab facility where I would be transferred.  Thank God for basic community knowledge and friends who helped review and screen my options.

No matter what you call it, rehab in a nursing home stinks.  Your life shrinks when you stay most the day in your room, share with changing roommates, eat delivered meals at designated times, bathe on a schedule, and are humbled by having to ask and wait for essential help with basic care or movement.  I was frustrated and angry at having to live here for 2 weeks.  Each day was a lifetime and by day 4, I began to dream about being in prison.  Despite all of that, I stayed positive on the outside, and recall fondly hour-long escapes with friends and creating a tradition of afternoon and evening 7-Up and cranberry juice cocktails with Ruby, my 85-year-old nearly deaf roommate.

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My trusty cane.

When I finally went home, I was physically and intellectually prepared, but in no way ready emotionally for a slow and episodic recovery.  During the next 5 months following rehab, I lived primarily in the small world of my house. Drugs and ice helped with pain, but initially made it impossible to concentrate to read.  No matter how many channels are on TV they dull rather than expand your mind and world.

PT was 2 days a week and progress was slow but visible.  I started regular walks around the block and then a bit further with neighbors and progressed from a walker to a cane. Progress and sometimes the ability to move at all were detoured by falls, infections in my right foot and sometimes the weather. One step forward and two steps back. Despite that I was determined to be ready for adventure.

My life expands beyond the bottle

I wanted to believe that my life would be back to normal by November 2016, so I planned for it to be so. Beginning several months prior to the knee replacement, I was asked to join friends on trips.  Rather than being cautious, I said a resounding “YES” to every opportunity.   I would go on three trips on four continents that got me outdoors and allowed me to get up-close to wild animals and new cultures.

Meg, an Ohio work colleague who knew I loved my 2001 trip to Ireland, invited me to join her and 6 of her lifelong friends there for Thanksgiving week.  I joined online planning, and met my new traveling companions at a bar in the Boston airport.


Molly and friends enjoy a dinner of Irish Stew on Thanksgiving Day in Ireland.

Leaving just 2 weeks after the presidential election, we hoped to escape the constant politics at home.  We headed off intent on enjoying the hills, pubs, castles, people and music of Ireland.  I did it all of that with the exception of the castles, which were not very accessible to a gimp, even with a blue shiny balancing cane. Ireland’s weather is like Portland and the people are just as welcoming.  I especially enjoyed lessons on how to pour the perfect pint of Guinness in the expected 119.5 seconds.


Pour a pint of Guinness in 119.5 seconds? “I did it on the first try! All you need is a teacher with 60 years’ experience,” says Molly.

Contrary to the classic saying about all politics being local, I discovered that in today’s world all politics is international and there is no escaping it. The first two questions in every pub: So you voted for him? What the heck is the Electoral College?

My old college roommate Bobbie and her husband Chris annually spend February as East Coast snowbirds in Fort Myers Beach, Florida.  Joining her seemed perfect. It was a chance to leave Portland’s wet and snowy winter.  More importantly, Bobbie had come at the time of surgery to spend a week with me and I was stuck in the rehab facility instead.  A week of cooking, laughing, wine, short walks and sharing stories in the Flamingo State was the best remedy for my depression at slow progress in healing.

My life inflates yet again

Millie, a lifelong friend and traveling companion, won a week-long photo safari in South Africa at a United Way fundraiser in Alaska.  Even though Africa was not on my bucket list, I jumped at the chance to join her at a game lodge. (View it here.) In the weeks before departure I got shots, bought and learned to use a camera, and packed and unpacked multiple times for what was to become the trip of a lifetime.

I left Portland at 10 am March 31st and we arrived in Durban, South Africa, after more than 40 hours of flying at 7 pm on April 2nd.  Durban is an industrial city of 4 million people on the Indian Ocean coast of Africa. We took our tour leaders’ advice and stayed a couple of days to sleep and acclimate before moving on to the safari. My image of this time is our white faces in a sea of welcoming black ones.

Arriving at the game reserve, we joined a group consisting of 4 other couples hailing from England, Canada and the United States. In each case, someone had purchased the trip as part of a fundraising event so that gave us something in common.  We met Chris, an Afrikaner, who became our weeklong Land Rover driver, experienced tour guide, joke teller, and the answerer of all our ridiculous questions.

I was “glamping” in a game lodge.  The lodge staff, mainly comprised of Zulu people from local tribes, had a genuine interest in all who visited their “home” and would readily engage in conversations about their upbringing, families, life in the bush and the best tasting game meat to sample at nightly buffets. I was impressed that all the people in doing their jobs spoke at least 3 languages fluently.

Every day we moved at a pace that mirrored the animals.  I did not have to worry about walking and falling.  We started each morning with a game drive at 5 am so we could see both the sun and the animals rise.  We would return for breakfast, some activities, a midday rest and be out again at dusk to check the watering holes.  I felt like I was being welcomed into a quiet unexposed world that was momentarily peaceful. Through each day and the week, I was a visitor to the homes of cheetah, lions, elephants, rhinos, hippos, water buffalo, giraffe, zebra, nyala and much more.

(Click on photos to view captions.)

The animals were accustomed to sharing their habitat with Land Rovers and did not react to our human presence.  Yet we were also made aware of danger and the encroaching outside world.  On one day a loud and pesky helicopter was rounding up 200 nyala to move to another reserve to guard against over grazing.   We saw the remains of the wildebeest dinner of the pride of lions we were observing.   We heard that locals who earned $250 a month could earn $65,000 in one evening of poaching tusks and of the estimates that all rhinos would be gone from the continent in a decade or less.

Saying goodbye to the safari, we again spent a day in Durban before flying on to Dubai. Dubai is a city-state that is part of the United Arab Emirates located in southwest Asia.  Since I have a young friend there running a Montessori school, we added a two-day stay in this city of contrasts to our itinerary.  Dubai is the business, advertising and marketing capital of the Middle East. It looks like New York on steroids given the space and new buildings, but take a water taxi across the bay and you are in the 17th century spice, cloth or gold markets.


Molly, left, and Millie cross the harbor in a water taxi with the Dubai skyline in the background.

Dubai’s population of 1.7 million is 80% emigrants, mostly Indian and Pakistani, and mostly young professionals.  Its commitment to internationalism was evident even at the school we visited, where 3- to 5-year-olds are speaking French, English and Arabic throughout their day. On our short visit, welcoming conversations and inquiries were initiated by both a young woman in western dress at Friday brunch at the Westin and an older woman in a niqab at the spice market.


My life settles down

I am happy to be home and feel more ready to face my continuing recovery.  My goals sound simple: to be pain-free, cane-free, able to carry my own groceries, and have the endurance and balance to walk safely for an hour or more.  Whether I reach these goals or not, I want to remember the best of the lessons learned over this year.

  • Travel has made me feel that I have more in common with others. The world seems smaller, more friendly and safer than I expected.
  • Each animal’s pace is different. My recovery period is certainly more than the 6 months originally predicted. Even it takes me 2 years to get there I must stay focused and find peace with that.  I will find peace even if I have to keep the cane.
  • The normal ups and downs in everyone’s life are so much more than a science experiment. My life will fill to the degree to which I include friends and adventures whether at home or across the world.   I must remember the best of the larger world when I have to stay in the smaller one.
  • Promote the positivity, appreciation and gratitude that were evident in the people I met across the world and in the friends that are part of my everyday life.
  • Never forget how lucky I am to have the stability, resources and opportunity to travel outside my own everyday reality.

I will find balance moving forward.  I have postponed a hoped-for trip to Thailand because I am not ready for jostling crowds in the city.  No matter what, I will keep moving and planning to see the broader world.

Photographs: Molly Holsapple


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Molly Holsapple

Molly Holsapple spent a career and lifetime as an advocate and implementer of quality supports for employment and a full life for persons with disabilities, primarily persons with developmental disabilities.  Now she tries to spend a more balanced life in her neighborhood, community and the world. 

Editor’s note: Molly is a longtime friend, a fellow Northeast Portland resident, and personal training client of my wife, Lori. She is tenacious, passionate, opinionated, well-read and, now, well-traveled.

Tomorrow: Elizabeth Hovde, Luigi is mine



Three Hours in Utqiaġvik

tim akimoff

Tim Akimoff stands at the northernmost point of land in the United States.

By Tim Akimoff

The C-130’s shadow moved over the sea ice like a thundering storm cloud, as two Coast Guardsmen opened the rear of the plane to reveal the vast expanses of white nothingness below us.

The two passengers (us) and the crew were strapped to the plane as the pair leaned out the opening to survey the ice for stranded humans or polar bears.

Polar bears were more likely, but the Guardsmen practiced for humans, who may increasingly travel to the Arctic as polar ice melts, and they are drawn to the oncoming reality of a Northwest Passage.

The icy wind stung my face, but my body was warm inside a gray Patagonia goose-down sweater coat, something I never thought I’d own until I moved to Alaska the previous fall.

Michelle wore a black, full-length Patagonia coat and she smiled at me across the body of the big plane as we made eye contact briefly before continuing to strain our eyes to try and see a polar bear

For a moment, my mind couldn’t really comprehend this reality. Eight months before this, I was helping to build a new website for the Missoulian newspaper in Montana.

When I was laid off from the newspaper in August, it was Michelle who called to tell me to apply for a job at the television station she worked at in Anchorage.

“You’ll never believe what I get to do every day,” said the woman I had started my career with at a newspaper in Salem, Oregon, five years previously.

She wasn’t wrong.

The C-130 is an engineering marvel, as tough and unlikely a flying machine as the bumble bee and perfect for Arctic search and rescue missions, which we were witnessing as reporters for NBC’s KTUU Channel 2 in Anchorage.

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The Coast Guard C-130 Hercules.

I have never felt safer than on that plane hurtling low across the sea ice only 1,300 miles from the North Pole.

Finding no humans or polar bears, the pilots wheeled the plane around and beelined for Will Rogers Memorial Airport, an ice landing strip just outside of Utqiaġvik, known more commonly to the outside world as Barrow.

If Utqiaġvik were easier to say for anyone whose family had not lived there since people last crossed the Beringian land bridge 15,000 years ago, we’d not be calling it Barrow today.

Barrow is not the strangest place I’ve ever been; that would be Whittier, Alaska, a city where the entire population lives in the same building, but that is a story for another day.

When you leave the airport in Barrow and walk into town, massive whale skulls sit like sentinels in front of the public buildings.

Its most famous landmark is, in fact, a whalebone arch, where Michelle and I posed for pictures before heading up to the most northerly point of land in the United States.

(Click on images to view captions.)

Aside from the bones of the big Balaenidae, which are far more a testimony to the ancient subsistence lifestyle and its commitment to utilizing every part of the life-giving animals than you first realize, Barrow looks like an outpost on the edge of a vast wilderness that extends in every direction.

Most people, including New York Times reporters, parachute in and make judgment calls about Barrow and its citizens and their whale-hunting ways.

To understand the Inupiat lifestyle is to know something that has persisted on the edge of impossible for thousands of years.

The whales are the pumping heart of the village and the region. To not have or to not be able to hunt whale would be to cease to exist.

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“The Inupiat never boast they have caught a whale. They receive a whale, and they do so humbly. They believe that the whale chooses to sacrifice itself, that if a hunter creates a place pleasing to the animals, it will choose to die there and tell the others to come next year. Nothing logical about animal behavior or natural selection can shatter this belief, it is so deeply felt among the Inupiat. Doubting it would be akin to blasphemy, an abandonment of their heritage.” – Marla Cone

The gravel roads were free of snow this late in spring, but dirty snow covered everything else, giving the town a well-worn, winter-weary look to a place that never really experiences a summer.

We walked for a long time before realizing we should just hail a cab to do everything we wanted to accomplish in the three hours the Coast Guard was allowing us to explore.

He had been a taxi driver in Los Angeles for 20 years and before that, he’d lived in some remote Islands off North Korea.

Nothing seemed strange to him. No request to stop by the Wells Fargo to get some cash or to swing by the grocery store so we could take pictures of the exceptionally high-priced items like milk, $8.99, eggs, $10.00, and bread, $7.50.

Not even when we asked him how we could get some muktuk.

“I can get you muktuk,” he said. “You want to eat it fresh? Or do you want to take it home with you?”

Muktuk is the frozen skin and blubber from the bowhead whales harvested annually in spring and fall in Arctic Alaska.

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Muktuk, frozen skin and blubber, is served raw in order to take advantage of high amounts of vitamin C in it.

Whale hunting is among the more maligned practices on earth, even when it has sustained communities like those along Alaska’s Arctic coastline for thousands of years.

Muktuk, eaten raw to take advantage of the copious amounts of vitamin C, is the life-blood of the region, something Inupiats would use to trade with the interior Athabaskans for caribou and firewood.

Muktuk is almost entirely fat and when you eat it, it runs down your chin in oily rivulets having completely rendered in the heat of your mouth.

Our driver, a relative newcomer, is still part of the village and gets muktuk like the other villagers when there is a whale. The rest of his food he has shipped in once a year on the barges that haul things north when the ice melts. He orders everything he needs from an online Korean grocery store and cooks the traditional dishes his mother taught him a lifetime ago.

We met Mayor Harcharek at the library an hour later, and he looked at my name tag, supplied by the Coast Guard for the mission, and asked me if I was from St. Paul.

The Pribiloffs are two islands off the Alaskan coast that used to be part of the Beringian land bridge. There are two formerly Russian settlements with two groups of people, one of which spells their names with two FFs and one that spells their last names with one F.

“You’re Alaska Native with a name like Akimoff,” he said, smiling big and shaking my hand. “Gotta be from St. Paul.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I’m not Russian or Alaska native, especially as he walked us around the city building with his arm around my shoulder like I belonged there.

Michelle had been assigned to write a 48-hours in Barrow story for the station, while I was gathering social media content, so we said goodbye to our North Korean driver and walked back through the parts of Barrow we had passed too quickly in the car.

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Journalist Michelle Theriault-Boots takes photos of the Barrow palm trees.

By early afternoon, we had eaten at Pepe’s North of the Border and visited Brower’s Cafe, among a handful of other small shops and businesses.

Coast Guard missions are very precise, so we gave ourselves plenty of time to walk back to the airport before getting underway for the return trip.

The C-130 sat quietly at the end of the runway where we would board in another hour.

We made small talk with the crew and the mayor, who continued to insist I was from St. Paul Island, even though Michelle assured him I was just another American from the Lower-48.

We were exhausted when we finally boarded the big plane. Buckled in with a four-point harness, I fell asleep shortly after takeoff and slept the typically fitful airplane sleep for what felt like an hour, when a crew member came to shake me awake.

“Captain wants to show you something,” he said. “Bring your camera.”

I made my way up to the flight deck, which is a floor above the main deck.

Four crew members flew or navigated the big plane over an expansive, white Alaska landscape out the boxed glass windows below us.

The captain looked back at me and said, “I’m going to give you a view of Denali very few get to see,” he said.

The other crew member took me back down to the main deck but under the flight deck where a bubble window stuck out into the blue.

I looked down and saw the big mountain in front of me, encased in ice and brilliant in the bright, June sunshine. I snapped one picture, lowered my camera and just watched as we flew by it.

I walked back up to the flight deck and thanked the captain, who had a satisfied, big-brother-kind-of smile on his face.

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Denali, the mountain sacred to all Alaskans.

Michelle slept with her notebook tucked under her arms, so I didn’t wake her when I returned to my seat for landing in Anchorage.

Thinking back to being unemployed six months earlier, I smiled in the darkness of the cavernous plane, thanking my lucky stars and my dear friend silently as the wheels touched down.

Sometimes you engineer your life one day at a time. And other times you wake up expecting the unexpected every day.

Photographs: Tim Akimoff


Tim Akimoff worked as a reporter for newspapers, television and radio in Oregon, Montana, Alaska and Chicago for a decade, before going to work for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife as a writer and social media coordinator. His life’s motto is a famous quote by G.K. Chesterton: “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” He has been incredibly fortunate to be dad to three amazing kids, and two of them are much better writers than he is. And the great privilege of his life is that he’s been fortunate to do all of this with an amazing woman he’s known since third grade. 

Editor’s note: I met Tim roughly a decade ago, when he was a University of Oregon student and I was The Oregonian’s recruiter. He joined the newsroom as an intern and I have marveled as his career has taken him to various states for various jobs in various mediums. I guess you’d call him versatile. Not to mention a great writer.

Tomorrow: Molly Holsapple, Life is not a science experiment

Donde come uno, comen dos. Two can eat from the same dish

Summer Academia Group_Photo Credit McNary Photography

Cynthia Carmina Gomez, top row, fifth from left, joins a group of Portland State University service learning students and youth enrolled in Summer Academia 2011.

By Cynthia Carmina Gomez

“You know what this means, right?” The oldest kid sat with his arms crossed on the edge of the bed.

“What?” said the other boy.

The third kid sat quietly.

“It means we won’t have enough food to eat. There will be less food.” The oldest uncrossed his arms and got up, leaving the other two behind.

It was early afternoon. The boys, just back from school, were transitioning into their evening routine. Andrea and I were in the adjoining room, getting the space ready for after-school tutoring. We stopped for a moment to listen. The doorway at the base of the stairs had no door so we would often hear the young men’s conversations. We were used to it. Adjudicated kids have little privacy. Andrea and I pretended not to listen and went back to setting up the rickety plastic tables and chairs, making more noise than usual.

Andrea and I were slowly converting a room into a little school. We called it La Escuelita. Its location, in the basement of the Latino-centric foster care home, was next to their sleeping quarters; a large square room with five tidy beds, a few dressers, and one window. It was military-style neat with few personal effects.

La Escuelita, to the left, was less furnished. Its cement floors were clean and painted beige. The rooms always a little damp and only sometimes warm. When they had time, the men who ran the center would turn on the space heater in anticipation of our arrival. If they forgot, it would not warm up until it was time for us to leave.

We had acquired a bookcase which held a small collection of Chicano/Latino literature, a few reference texts, and various outdated textbooks. There were no computers. A small amount of daylight came in through a little window above the dry erase board leaning on the wall, not yet mounted. The outline of a mural-in-progress covered one wall. Behind this wall was a hallway to a bathroom with a broken toilet behind one door and two more locked doors. In one of these, Andrea and I stored school supplies.

While only some of the residents in the home were on our caseload, we would try to sit with everyone who needed help. Too many youth and not enough time. The work was slow and difficult. Math made their eyes glaze over. Rarely did they know their timetables or basic order of operations. Most were English Language Learners and struggled with reading and comprehension. School work, in general, made backs slump and slowly pulled foreheads down toward the floor.

The surfaces of the cheap plastic tables were coarse and our thin paper would easily be punctured by the cheap pencil lead. Of all things, this grated on my nerves the most. A smooth writing surface represented to me a basic student right. To avoid bumpy illegible writing, Andrea and I would make them write on their folders.

Summer Academia_Photo Credit Mcnary Photopgraphy

A young man wears a T-shirt bearing a Summer Academia image drawn by Monchy Suarez.

We facilitated Latino cultural identity and heritage workshops after tutoring and it was during these lessons our young students were more likely to sit up, listen, ask questions. We would teach them about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and Dolores Huerta. We studied identity politics, internalized racism, and institutional oppression.

We watched the film Walk Out and learned about brown student activism. We started a summer camp called Summer Academia, during the months school was not in session. Sometimes, during our school site visits, Andrea and I were able to convince staff to award social studies credit for these lessons. These youth, rarely enrolled in school long enough, often did not receive the credit hours they earned.

It was time for us to go. As we cleared the room and collected our things, one of the staff came down with a mattress and prepared a bed in the middle of the bedroom.

“Just like I said,” the oldest spat.

Done with folding the chairs and tables, we went upstairs where dinner was being prepared. Andrea and I were reporting on our progress and making small talk when the doorbell rang.

There, standing on the front porch, was a probation officer with a young man. I scanned the room and noted, next to the dining table, a plastic card table set up with an extra place setting. The home would have one more mouth to feed.

The oldest youth pointed toward the new kid with his chin and asked, “Have you eaten dinner yet?”

During my time as an Educational Advocate, more children were deported, incarcerated, or killed in gang violence than graduated from high school. I know of only one who made it to college. The vicarious trauma overwhelmed any fleeting success we occasionally experienced. Depressing, yet we were determined to see our programs continue. It took all of our effort to keep the space functioning, but eventually the home closed and so did La Escuelita. Today, Summer Academia is a part of the Portland nonprofit Latino Network and thriving.

Photographs: McNary Photography


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Cynthia Carmina Gomez

Cynthia Carmina Gomez serves as executive director of the Cultural Resource Centers at Portland State University. Before this, she worked over 10 years for the Portland nonprofit Latino Network. Over a year ago, she discovered there was interest in her creative writing. She took a few classes and was overcome by the craft. She found herself applying and being admitted to the MFA Creative Nonfiction program at PSU. She starts her studies this September.

Editor’s note: In 2011, I was still employed at The Oregonian and reporting on a range of issues involving diversity and Portland’s changing demographics. I did a story about the nonprofit Latino Network and met Cynthia at that time. When I became an adjunct teacher at Portland State last fall, I was delighted to cross paths again with Cynthia and even more delighted to invite her to join VOA 7.0.  

Read my 2011 story about Latino Network: Growing leaders for Oregon’s booming Latino population

Read my Q&A with Cynthia: Six questions about civic leadership for the Latino Network’s Cynthia Gomez

Tomorrow: Tim Akimoff, Three Hours in Utqiaġvik

Making a better life for all of us


Students at Tigard’s Metzger Elementary School, many of whom are from immigrant families, are eager to learn.

By Michael Arrieta-Walden

The mother of two listened intently as the speaker described what documents parents should prepare in case an immigration action separated them from their children.

The potential nightmare for any parent was a real possibility for this mom.

She was among about 75 parents at an event put on by our school to provide families with information and resources. While we wanted to reduce fears for families with information, that was unrealistic.

For the mother of two, fear resurfaces daily, each time her husband drives to and from work. He has no legal documents, so she worries that in today’s climate a traffic stop could lead to deportation. Her fears are common among immigrant families.

I’ve asked her how she copes with that fear; it’s her belief in family that carries her. As long as the family is together, she says, they will be fine – no matter where they are.

But I think of what a huge loss it would be for my school community and our nation if families like hers are sent away.

Like many others, she and her husband came seeking a better life for their children. They are among the most dedicated parents I’ve worked with in eight years of teaching.

Although she works many hours cleaning people’s houses, she and her husband regularly volunteer at school. With their limited wages, they support their children with after-school activities.

They also are diligent about tracking the kids’ progress in school and holding them accountable for their homework. They insist they behave. And they always volunteer for community service projects and events at school.

These parents are valuable, contributing members of our school community. Their children will be productive adults in the future. Their deportation would be a loss for all of us.


Thanks to the rich diversity at the school, Multicultural Night is the biggest event of the year at Metzger Elementary School.

But their story is not unusual. Many of our families at Metzger Elementary School in Tigard give more than they take from the community. They are building our future.

You also see it throughout our school district. We rely on the students of Tigard High School’s MEChA and Intercambio programs to help with school nights and other projects. Those students are amazing and committed to community service. They are eager to help others. I am excited to see how much they will contribute after gaining a college education.

Many come from families who wanted to make a better life in America, but what they also are doing is making a better life for all of us in America.

What I marvel at is how much our families have endured to start anew here. I don’t think I would have the courage to do that.

Perhaps that is why, when I listened to the speakers describe how you should designate someone to oversee your children, I felt sick to my stomach. But the mother of two was a sea of calm.

Estaremos bien,” she said. We will be all right.

Photographs: Michael Arrieta-Walden


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Michael Arrieta-Walden

Michael Arrieta-Walden teaches fifth grade and has been teaching for seven years. Before teaching, he was a journalist for almost 30 years. He and his wife, Fran, live in Portland and have one daughter Maya, who lives in Washington, D.C.

From the author: The primary group that helped immigrants at our school is the Latino Network. If you would like to learn more about the group, donate or volunteer, you can go to their web site at

Editor’s note: I’ve known Mike since I was a young reporter at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. He was an even younger reporter — a college intern at the time — and all of us could see he had the passion, tenacity and empathy to become a first-rate journalist. Those same traits were on display when he later became a newsroom editor in Albuquerque, N.M.; Olympia, Wash.; and Portland, Ore. — and they are evident now in the classroom.

Tomorrow: Cynthia Carmina Gomez, Donde come uno, comen dos. Two can eat from the same dish



Baby, you can drive my car!

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Thumbs up for Isaac after the novice driver successfully parked the car in a Hillsboro High parking lot.

By Tammy Ellingson

Every year I imagine that summer will be a time of enormous life changes, rejuvenation, expanding my intellect, consciousness, weed-whacking radius, and language abilities.

This summer I planned to read for both pleasure and profession, to plan for the upcoming school year, re-tile both bathrooms (note to self: neighbor quit job in order to re-tile ONE bathroom this summer, hmmm), paint all household woodwork, kitchen cabinets, learn a bit of Danish and French in preparation for our two exchange students this year, get back to learning piano, and teach my son to drive.

This summer got off to a bit of a slow start thanks in part to a very snowy winter and many school days off, which tickled our Finnish exchange student, Luca, to no end. Apparently in Finland they don’t get to take a day (or nine) off of school for two inches of snow and icy streets, go figure?

We enjoyed those days off, until June rolled around, and school kept rolling as June kept rolling. I’ve never before had to consider my 4th of July fireworks plans on the last day of school, nor considered my back-to-school purchasing list on the heels of pulling out of the school parking lot. And, then there’s that teaching summer school thing.

(Click on photos to view captions)

Summer school is almost over, and when it is, I’ll be left with about three weeks in which to accomplish all of the summer bucket list items, and actually leave town, without a sleeping bag. I’ve had far too many stay-cations and camping vacations. Camping can be fun, but it is not a true vacation. As someone has assuredly said, camping is doing everything you do at home, except without all the conveniences and a lot more dirt.

So something’s gotta give – either my inflated expectations, or my definition of the season. In the Northwest, we always say that summer continues to show up well into October. It’s not the tasks on the list that I’m really most worried about, but the summers, with empty days, that I have left with my high schooler!

Next summer will be the summer before he’s a senior (and everyone keeps reminding me of that, like I don’t know it already, so stop people!!!), and suddenly all the things we have to do, seem to be taking away from the lazy, relaxing summers I had in my mind as a mother when he was a baby.

This summer that baby of mine needs to learn to drive! Yes, it should have happened last year, but life. So, it’s back to school we go — to the parking lot anyway, to make loops upon loops upon loops. Signaling, slowing, speeding up, turning, stopping, not screaming, not braking from the passenger side, keeping my arms at my side, trying to not take flight as we go over speed bumps, parking, backing up, unclenching my jaw, and forging ahead again.

Soon we’ll have to leave the school parking lot and get on an actual road, just like he will soon leave the relative safety of high school and home, and head to college.

There are so many other things left to teach him, and for me to learn.

However, this summer we’ll focus on letting him take the wheel, of the car, and his life. He’ll need to be able to leave our driveway and find his own way down the road. Just when I’m about to lose my ever-lovin’ mind, and panic that we only have a couple summers left as a family, he graciously and kindly reminds me that he’ll be back to spend time with us.


Even when he’s in college, I know there will be summers, and seasons, for us to still do things together as a family. Somewhere down deep he has learned to be kind and compassionate to his old folks, to calm our fears, and reassure us.

Once upon a time it was my job to calm and reassure him, but in the last couple of years a slow hand-off seems to have occurred. Oh, I know there will come a time when he is busy with his own life, and we won’t be front of mind, just like with us and our parents.

One part of me can hardly wait to see all the amazing things he gets to experience in his life, and the other part will forever be trying to catch my breath during this lifetime whirlwind called parenthood. I guess we are both learning to ease off the brake, accelerate carefully, check the mirrors, and be on our way, and it will take several seasons.


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Tammy Ellingson: All smiles after a fresh haircut.

Tammy Ellingson is a teacher (which means eternal student), wife, mother, and writer who needs to spend less time wringing her hands and screaming while following the politics of the day, and more time creating a livable and loving present and future for those around her. Oh sure, she has hobbies, who doesn’t? However, abandoning them as quickly as she begins seems to be her most practiced hobby to date. She should probably take the hint from her son and spend some time with the comedy writing book he gave her for her birthday. It may be the best retirement investment she has.

Editor’s note: A mutual acquaintance recommended Tammy to me when I was looking for Hillsboro-area residents who’d be interesting in writing for the Hillsboro Argus. Tammy proved to be not just a capable writer with strong opinions, but someone with a great sense of humor. Five years later, the Argus is history but Tammy is still writing for me. Win!  

Tomorrow: Michael Arrieta-Walden, Making a better life for all of us



My beautiful child, Midori

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Aki celebrates with Midori after she earned a silver medal at the Junior Olympic national tournament in June.

By Aki Mori

I feel I’ve traveled a long way in a short amount of time with my daughter, Midori. It was only a year or so ago when the term “transgender” first began to appear in our conversations. Since that time, I have progressed through different phases without too much difficulty: awareness, understanding, and support. The next phase on my journey as father is the embracing of Midori’s gender identity. I’m not quite there yet, but I know I’m close and I’ll get there shortly.

Midori has always been an exceptionally beautiful girl. Everywhere we have gone, people have told my wife, Katie, and I how cute or adorable or darling Midori is. Darn it, as her father I was just so proud of it all. I envisioned her growing into an amazing young woman: intelligent, fierce, independent, and gosh-darn beautiful. So when she began expressing herself as a boy, it was hard for me to watch her let go of her natural girlish beauty. It may only come across as shallow and selfish on my part to phrase it this way, but what pains me most is to see her beauty be wasted.

But I am coming along, and Midori gives me plenty of space with her happy-go-lucky personality. With the passing of time I am beginning to treat Midori more and more like my son, even subconsciously in many cases. She is unusually tough physically, so I make her carry the heaviest bags of groceries, or the extra suitcase when we are traveling. She frequently gets injured in judo – and it’s not a big deal to me. I let her punch me in the shoulder as a sign of her affection to me. Mowing the lawn is probably on the horizon.

The singular turning point in my comfort with Midori’s gender identity was a phone conversation I had with my mom, who lives in Ohio. Even long after Midori’s transgender status was established in our household, I had been avoiding the topic with my parents because they are serious Pentecostal Christians. They view challenging situations in life through the lens of a spiritual battle taking place in an invisible realm.

I feared that Midori’s unusual choices would be cause for my parents to pass judgment on my spiritual uprightness as a parent and family protector. When I finally broke the “news” to my mom, her reaction shocked me. Without any pause or reflection whatsoever, her response to me in Japanese was, “So what?”

She was completely supportive of Midori and even surprisingly knowledgeable on the topic. Who knew that programming on Japanese satellite TV could be so progressive? And more importantly, who knew that assumptions I held about my mom’s core values could be toppled like Jenga bricks so late in my life?

Aki's Mother and Midori - Caption 2

Aki’s mother came to visit Portland in March. Her earlier and immediate embrace of Midori’s gender identity was both a surprise and an inspiration to Aki.

My current worries? I think about the difference between gender identity and sexuality. They are separate topics. I am comfortable with the former, but not the latter in the context of my 13-year old child. And yet I know that whenever Midori turns to the internet for information, she will Google umbrella terms like “LGBTQ” or “queer,” which will produce a mish-mash of search results, including ones that are offensive or possibly horrifying.

Similarly, Midori recently expressed an interest in attending gay pride parades. If such events were organized with children in mind, I would have no problem with that. Katie and I are basically left to helplessly trust that Midori will exercise good judgment and apply boundaries for herself that are appropriate. I know these are the same concerns of any parent who has a teenager, right? I get that we’re all on the same bumpy boat ride.

At both the tree and the forest levels, Katie and I are so proud of Midori. Midori’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins also feel the same way, and her little sister, Ayumi, doesn’t care. They’ve always been best friends and there’s nothing to indicate that will ever change.

The Mori Family - Caption 3

The Mori family visited Japan together for the first time this summer. Mother Katie (far left) and father Aki flank Ayumi and Midori as they stand at the entrance to the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo.

Midori has a lot to be thankful for. I have a lot to be thankful for. At the same time that we are traveling along separate journeys, we also are on a road trip together. As I mentioned, “embracing” is my next destination on the roadway and I can now see it coming right up around the corner.


Aki Mori and his wife, Katie, moved to the Portland area in 2006 after winning the right to purchase their home in a real estate lottery. They are both thankful to live in Portland. It’s the perfect place to raise their two children, Midori and Ayumi. Aki has been a public educator for 18 years and currently is an assistant principal at a high school in Beaverton.

Editor’s note: I met Aki several years ago when I edited an op-ed piece he submitted to The Oregonian and I regard him as a model educator and parent. He is a family man who exhibits kindness and integrity, and demonstrates respect for others. As the parent of a gay daughter, this piece resonates deeply with me. I don’t imagine it will be long before Aki moves from accepting to embracing his child’s gender identity.

Read Midori’s piece: What it means to have Pride

Tomorrow: Tammy Ellingson, Baby, you can drive my car!





What it means to have Pride

Midori haircut

Midori could not contain her smiles as she cut her long hair short for the first time last November. The inclusive vibe of Bishops Barbershop was important to her and her parents.

By Midori Mori

As a child living in this liberal bubble known as Portland, Oregon, I have lived my life naïve and ignorant of the outside world. It wasn’t until recently I even discovered the term for those like me: Transgender. For 12 of my 13 years, all I knew was that I was different from most of the girls in my class.

Unlike most stories I’ve read, it wasn’t like an a-ha moment where pieces started to click together all at once. It was a more-gradual understanding of what it meant to be queer. Heck, I didn’t even know the term until a couple of months ago. For a long time I kept trying to find the why. Why did I feel the way I did? Why did it seem so wrong to be in my own body? After all this time I realized it wasn’t about why I was the way I was, but more importantly what I do about it now. I wanted the world to see me as a boy. I didn’t want to be trapped in this image as a girl anymore.

Dressing as a boy came with ease because my parents have watched me do so for years and years. Yet something has always bothered me as I looked in mirrors or saw pictures of myself. The only thing that kept me back this whole time was my long hair. Why was it long to begin with? It was more the transition from knowing who I am to letting others know. As much as I could stand my ground in a fight if someone were to bully me (proudly, I may add), I wasn’t sure if I was ready for the questions that would come my way. I didn’t want to answer any of them.

When people asked why did I always dress like a boy, I simply replied, “Because I want to.” And that was the truth. Not cutting my hair was the only thing left to keep me from looking like the image I desired. And I don’t think I had it in my heart to answer questions when I barely knew the explanation myself. In the end, I let my heart win and just decided to take the hit with no regrets.

It wasn’t so much I was worried about what the kids at my school would think of me. It was the people who knew me better than myself, and that would be my companions in my Judo dojo. I quickly found a strong passion for combat of any kind growing up. Whether it was the ninja shows on TV to learning Kung Fu at my Chinese school, I just simply loved the exhilaration from battling. The rush, the fight, and the fact that one will go home defeated, the other a victor. Life doesn’t give you participation trophies so why should Martial Arts be an exception?

Midori and Judo Family

Midori with her second family, her community of friends at the Portland Judo dojo. Seated to her right (second row) is her beloved Sensei, Roy Kawaji.

However, as much as Judo grew on me, it was more the people I met along the way – my training partners, my coaches, and of course, my senseis. As a role model for the younger disciples at my dojo, the reputation I hold might be tarnished by my image as queer. All my success might suddenly mean less for those who choose not to associate with me. And most of all, I didn’t want my reputation among my senseis and seniors to change, either. Everyone who trains in that building holds a place in my heart. It would break my spirit to see them begin to disown me for something I can’t change about myself. But they didn’t; in fact, they seemed to be more of a mix of shocked and supportive. Even the kids at my school reacted the same way.

I guess that’s the difference between having pride in who you are rather than accepting who you are. Even now it is a battle I am still fighting. It seems mostly everyone around me can accept who I am and the only person who can’t is me. I don’t care if I have to shout out to the world that I am transgender, but for now saying that about myself still makes me uncomfortable. Some part of me is more in shock of my own label than denial. I want to be able to love who I am as a person but I always come to the same conclusion – I am a mistake.

When I hear about other people in the world who are openly trans and gay and such, I feel so happy for them and that the world is slowly changing its heart. When I meet someone in the LGBT community, I always am so excited to get to know them more.

When it comes down to me, though, I wonder why I can so easily love others for being like me but I can’t ever bring myself to love the person I am. Sometimes I even wish I could just be “normal” in the sense of my gender identity. I want to feel like I belong in the body I was born in. I want to feel like I can grow up and go to whatever college I choose without having to worry about whether the campus is liberal toward LGBT or not. Nonetheless, I can’t change who I am. So if I am transgender I won’t deny it, but rather continue following what my heart knows is right rather than my mind. Because sometimes it is less important to be logical, and more necessary to be emotional.

Midori in Japan

The highlight of Midori’s first-ever trip to Japan (ironically) was an afternoon spent in Tokyo’s Korea Town district. Midori and her school friends are huge fans of K-Pop music.

Being more of a liberal moderate, I am always ready for the world to change in terms of the gap between races, the social norms of what every man and women should be like, even who we can choose to love. As much as I support every word I just said, I’m not ready for my world to change. I never thought being queer would ever relate to my life and now it defines my entire life. My only hope is that seeing the way things are changing around me might be the only change I need to see before embracing the new discoveries about myself. We shouldn’t fear the future inside ourselves and our lives, but rather welcome it and thrive.


Midori Mori will be entering 8th grade this year. She found her life’s passion and a community of friends when she discovered Portland Judo five years ago. She competes in regional and national events and dreams of becoming a U.S. Olympian in 2024. She also is interested in politics and watches MSNBC with her dad.

Editor’s note: Midori became part of the VOA community last year when she shared her thoughts following a family vacation that included a side trip to a Japanese internment camp in northwest Wyoming. Read her essay here: My visit to Heart Mountain

Tomorrow: Aki Mori, My beautiful child, Midori

The Cross of Malta

By Michelle Love

A few weeks ago, while attending the 118th VFW National Convention, a woman approached me while my mother and I were taking pictures of the Buddy Poppy displays. I assumed it was another woman who wanted to comment on my poppy printed skirt.  However, I would soon find out that she was more concerned about what I was wearing on my head instead.

“I just got out of the VFW Riders meeting and they were talking about the Cross of Malta,” the woman said, looking at the emblem on my cap.

“They were?” I asked as I glanced around to see how far ahead my mother had wandered.

“Yes,” she replied. “Apparently, they’re letting just anyone wear it.”

“Who is?” I challenged, incredulously.  As a Gold Legacy Life member or the Veterans of Foreign Wars, I had paid over $1,600 in membership dues for the right to wear this emblem.

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The Cross of Malta

“We are!” the woman retorted, raising the tone of her voice to match my own.

“Really?”  I said, still in disbelief. “But you have to be a member of the VFW to wear the Cross of Malta,” I explained.

“Well, there are some people who believe that only people who served in combat deserve to wear it,” the woman stated before she sauntered off.

I felt a sense of déjà vu as I watched her walk away.  A few years earlier at our convention in Pittsburgh, I was approached by a woman who could not believe I was a member of the VFW.  Now, I meet a woman who basically implied that I didn’t deserve to be one.

The Cross of Malta is the official emblem of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  Adapted from the Maltese Cross, it is the symbol of fighting men who, united by a solemn pledge of comradeship, were willing to go to war to fight for freedom and to aid the sick and needy.  This logo used to be emblazoned on bumper stickers declaring “Join the Elite”, luring young men to join what is now often referred to as a “good ol’ boys” club.  If one were to look up the history behind the logo, then take our name in its most literal sense, one could assume that our organization is only for combat veterans. And women weren’t allowed to serve in combat.

As I hurried to catch up to my mother, I began to wonder if this was a widespread belief among our ranks.  If so, I contemplated, are we are responsible for our own demise?

There are three prerequisites to be eligible for membership in the VFW.  First, you have to be either a U.S. Citizen or U.S. National.  Second, you had to have served honorably in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Finally, you would have to had either received a recognized campaign medal, served in Korea for a set amount of days, or have received Hostile Fire or Imminent Danger Pay.  I earned my eligibility to join the VFW during my 1-year tour of duty on the Korean peninsula.

Today, our membership stands at nearly 1.7 million members between the VFW and the family members that belong to its Auxiliary.  While that number may sound large, it is down by almost 200,000 members since 2015. Many blame this decrease on the death of our World War II veterans.  I attribute it to ineffective recruiting.

Up until 2013, women were banned from serving in combat roles until Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that this rule had been rescinded.  With the goal of ensuring that the mission was met with the best qualified and most capable people, regardless of gender, lifting this ban opened around 230,000 posts, including some on the front line.

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Michelle Love, VFW member and U.S. Air Force veteran

I separated from the military well before this change went into effect.  However, when I did serve, I spent half of my career in a support role for an all-male tactical unit.  I trained alongside those men in the event our entire squadron was deployed.  Had that call ever come, I would have answered it willingly.

The VFW is our nation’s oldest major veterans’ service organization.  We have a longstanding record of service and stewardship and millions of Americans have entrusted us with their generous monetary contributions that afford us the opportunity to grant millions in scholarships and emergency financial grants.  We also have almost 2,000 people who donate their time to assist veterans file claims for well-earned VA benefits as well as those who take the time to testify before Congress, fighting for the rights of our servicemembers and their dependents. By not allowing all eligible veterans the opportunity to join our ranks, we are not just hurting ourselves, but also the sick and needy we swore to protect and defend.

We are the Veterans of Foreign Wars, not the Combat Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the sooner we remember that, the sooner we can rebuild our ranks.


Michelle Love is a proud veteran of the United States Air Force and active member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. She was recently elected Commander and named Veteran of the Year for District 2, which covers Seattle, Burien and Vashon Island. Michelle was stationed at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea from August 1997 until August 1998 and was awarded the Korean Defense Service Medal.

Editor’s note: Michelle is the sister of Jackie Weatherspoon, a 2015 VOA contributor and former journalist at The Oregonian who suggested her sibling step in for her last year. Michelle did so and was happy to write again this year. I’m grateful for her military service and hope to turn an online relationship to a face-to-face friendship this fall. 

Tomorrow: Midori Mori, What it means to have Pride