People to Meet
Jerry Hillis’ memories of living at Rainier Vista in the late 1940s are bittersweet. The prominent attorney, whose client list includes the Seattle Mariners and the Port of Seattle, lived in the neighborhood while in elementary school.
“There were hundreds of kids around, so there was always something to do and someone to play with,” said Jerry. “But there was also the understanding that you were trapped in the projects. We used to ride our bikes to the Mt. Baker neighborhood and peer into the windows of the homes. You could see the families and all that they had. It was very humbling.”
But even at that young age, Jerry had a plan. “I didn’t know any lawyers nor did I really understand what a lawyer did. But I would read books about Presidents and they all seemed to be lawyers. I wanted to be President; so naturally, I knew I had to become a lawyer. For me, it was a way out.”
In 1951, Jerry’s mother moved her family to Edmonds. At the time, the town was basically just farmland. “It was a drastic change, going from a neighborhood filled with kids to one where you had to find something to occupy your time.”
He graduated from Edmonds High School and attended Whitman College on a full scholarship, majoring in political science. There he was a star athlete, lettering in both football and track and field. He went on to receive his J.D. from the University of Washington and shortly after started his own law firm.
Jerry credits his mother for instilling in him the need for an education. “She always stressed the importance of school. I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school, let alone college and graduate school.”
Having looked back on his early days at Rainier Vista, Jerry is very supportive of the neighborhood’s transformation. “I think the changes are tremendous. It’s what a neighborhood should be — a mix of cultures, people, and backgrounds. It enables everyone to reach out and learn from each other rather than get lost in their own groups.”
A FAMILY REUNITED IN COLUMBIA CITY
In 1987, political oppression forced Van Vo to immigrate to the United States from Vietnam. He had dreamt of living here since high school when teachers who lived abroad had shared their experiences.
He first settled in San Jose, California and moved to Seattle in 1990. His wife and two young sons joined him here four years later and they settled in the Rainier Valley. Van had been a teacher in Vietnam and channeled those skills into working with residents as a community organizer for Jobs Plus, a national jobs initiative for public housing families. In 1998, he joined the Seattle Housing Authority at Rainier Vista and is now working as a self-sufficiency specialist with The Job Connection.
Three years ago, Van and his family fulfilled another dream — that of owning a home. They purchased a house just south of Rainier Vista near the NewHolly and Othello Station neighborhoods. He’s taken an active role in Rainer Vista, forming a community language bank for interpreting services, and assisting Columbia City’s Farmers’ Market with translating fliers for the area’s many cultures.
Van Vo’s commitment to his community and his family is exemplary. His oldest son just graduated from Seattle University and is going on to medical school. His youngest is studying Computer Engineering at the same university. Of his adopted country he says, “Here you have freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to tell the government what is important to us.” In Seattle’s neighborhood of nations, those freedoms are especially treasured because they have been the beacon for immigrants from around the world.
THE TASTY POETRY OF SWEET POTATO PIE
Speaking with Dr. Mona Lake Jones, one can clearly understand why, for five years, she was Seattle’s Poet Laureate and is today King County’s Poet Laureate. Gracious and open, she waxes poetic about her own life, passions, and community, celebrating the positive, the miraculous, and the inspirational.
“I look around me and see a little piece of joy here and a little piece of joy there and say, ‘I need to write about that’,” explained Dr. Jones. “I’m drawn to writing about what I call the sweetness of life.”
Dr. Jones began writing when her two children graduated from high school. “I worked full-time when they were growing up, so I didn’t have a lot of time to explore my creativity. After they left for college, I began looking for ways to express myself artistically.” As Director of Public Relations for Seattle Community Colleges, she was often asked to speak publicly and would insert lines of her poetry into her speeches. At one such appearance, an editor from the national magazine, Essence, was in the audience.
“She suggested that I send some of my poems into the magazine and they were accepted,” she explains matter-of-factly. “It really was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.”
However, it was her talent, not her timing, that propelled her to success. After several of her poems were printed in the magazine, readers began writing in, asking where they could purchase her book — a book which didn’t exist. The editor called her and suggested that she put together a compilation of poems. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, I guess I’m a poet’.”
Her first book of poetry, The Color of Culture, was followed by The Color of Culture II, and she recently released a CD titled, “Poetry Dancing on Music.” Winner of both the Langston Hughes and Blackbird Literary Awards, she is a full-time poet and motivational speaker, spending much of her time on the road, speaking to colleges, conventions, and civic groups about issues of culture and diversity.
“As a child, I thought everyone’s experience was the same as mine, that everyone’s grandmother played the blues and made sweet potato pie. But as I began to learn more about other cultures, I truly loved and embraced the differences.”
A resident of southeast Seattle, Dr. Jones immersed her children in the many cultures of the neighborhood as well. “One day my children were home from college and had invited many of their friends from the neighborhood over to celebrate in our backyard. As I looked out the kitchen window, I just smiled at the sight of African American, Hispanic, Asian, and white teenagers all together having a fabulous time. Where else but in this neighborhood can you find that?”