The courage to do hard things

Watching Washington communities stand up to wildfires and mudslides that destroyed property and lives left Gov. Jay Inslee "humbled, inspired and, most importantly, resolute."
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Watching Washington communities stand up to wildfires and mudslides that destroyed property and lives left Gov. Jay Inslee "humbled, inspired and, most importantly, resolute."

One of my first visits outside the state Capitol as governor was to Crestline Elementary in Vancouver. A fire had recently reduced the school to not much more than a charred pile of rubble. More than 500 students had to go to other schools while Crestline was rebuilt, a significant disruption to the sense of normalcy that so many of us take for granted.

For youngsters with only six or seven years under their belt, seeing your classroom burned to the ground is a scary and traumatic experience. But when I met a little boy there named Peyton, it was immediately clear that he and his classmates were facing this challenge with courage.

The kids were undaunted by the fire. In fact, Peyton’s mother had designed a poster with a phrase that quickly became the motto for the school as they worked to rebuild not just the building, but a new sense of normalcy. The sign said: We can do hard things.

That phrase has stuck with me. I now have a reproduction of the sign posted in my own office and have repeated that phrase numerous times to myself, to my staff and to my colleagues in the State Legislature. I’ve used that phrase as a reminder about the need to prioritize funding for education or pass a new transportation package for Washington’s commuters and businesses. 

And I know it’s true. We can do hard things. This job has given me access to an unfiltered view of people at their very best. I’ve seen gestures of courage, hope and resilience across our state that leave me feeling humbled, inspired and, most importantly, resolute.

One night recently the Washington State Patrol was called to help evacuate the town of Pateros and the surrounding area being hit by Central Washington wildfires. The fire was unsparing and destroyed the homes of two Washington State Troopers: Sgt. Lex Lindquist and Trooper Ted Shook. That didn’t stop the two troopers, though, in their work to make sure as many of their neighbors as possible got out safe. They put aside their own loss to follow the patrol's creed: Service with Humility.

That’s courage. And I don’t mean to just highlight state workers. Okanogan Sheriff Frank T. Rogers literally worked all night driving from remote home to remote home to make sure no one had been left behind. I saw him the next afternoon and he was still going, still putting his own needs aside for those he serves.

The March mudslide on SR 530 was one of the worst natural disasters this state has ever experienced. From moments after the wall of mud destroyed the community of Oso, Washingtonians showed their courage under the most difficult circumstances. The first responders hung from helicopters to pluck survivors from the muck as nurses and doctors made sure those lives were saved.

But courage isn’t just for those in uniforms. In Oso people waded deep into the dangerous mud to find friends, neighbors and even their own wives, husbands, children and grandchildren.

Crosscut archive image.Rhonda Cook volunteered and worked tirelessly to help with response and recovery efforts at the SR 530 slide. She was the first volunteer at the scene, and the last to leave. She didn’t hesitate at the moment her neighbors needed her and took quick action to secure the equipment needed for search and rescue efforts.

She made a huge sacrifice and put herself in danger at a time when we didn’t even know the full extent of the slide or how stable the ground was.

But sometimes it’s a small thing that shows courage. When I was at a Red Cross shelter for wildfire victims in Chelan, a little five-year-old girl named Maylin came in holding a book under arm. Maylin (above) told one of the volunteers it was her favorite book and she wanted to donate it so the children at the shelter would have something to read.

We’ve faced some daunting challenges during the past year, but in every instance we are showing that, together, we can indeed do hard things. We’re celebrating the reopening of Crestline Elementary in time for the upcoming school year and I’m looking forward to joining Peyton for the ribbon-cutting. We built a new bridge over the Skagit River in 28 days. Search teams were able to find each of the 43 victims of the SR 530 slide and the communities of Arlington, Darrington and Oso are working together to rebuild.

We’re finding the courage to do hard things because we know those hard things matter. There are big problems to tackle in the coming months and years, and there will always be the risk of a new crisis around the corner. We may not always agree on everything, but like a family, we still come together when it counts. It’s a family I’m proud to be part of.


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