- Janet Pelz
If Neighbor had a rank, Anne Travis-Barker would be a General. Four star.
Ms. Anne’s neighborhood is wherever she is at the moment – her south Seattle seven bedroom home which she fills with children; the back corner of a modest building nearby which is active with evening AA meetings, mentoring sessions for young women, Church service on Sunday and any other needs her community might have on all other days of the year. Her neighborhood travels with her from the local bus stop, where she asserts her responsibility to break up a fight, to the poorest places in southern Mississippi and even when she goes on vacation.
“If someone is in need I’ve got to help. My kids say ‘one day you’re going to get yourself killed’,” she recounts, throwing her head back laughing, but her expression soon becomes serious. “You have to be a citizen, you can’t just look the other way. I saw this guy beating a woman, right on Cherry Street and nobody was stopping to help her!,” says Ms. Anne incredulously. “So I headed straight for him and I told the lady, get in the car! I drove her to Swedish Hospital and I asked her, what are you doing? You don’t have to live like that.” Pride and self worth are among the gifts Ms. Anne shares both with strangers on the street and with children in her home.
A strong Christian, Ms. Anne quotes scripture at a pace that would make a cattle auctioneer envious. “In the Book of Mark, chapter 12, Jesus is asked which of the Ten Commandments is most important and he answers number 1: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength; and number 2: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” she says, reciting the latter with an emphasis on every word. “Now, there are a lot of people who aren’t too happy with that one because they think that what is theirs should stay theirs.” Ms. Anne, on the other hand, is of the mind that most anything of hers can be shared with someone who needs it.
I met Ms. Anne in her “office” at the back of a non-descript building in Seattle’s Rainier Valley. No sign identifies its purpose but it’s clear that anyone who needs to come here doesn’t need a sign to tell them what it is. Ms. Anne emerges from behind a makeshift office divider moving slowly and deliberately, but her face displays no pain, just radiant joy. A young man quietly and efficiently helps seat her in a stacking chair, and unfolds a table for me to set my laptop on before bringing out a cup of coffee for me and Ms. Anne’s preferred ginger tea.
Anne Travis Barker also refers to the Bible to explain her view of the special role women play in society. “In the Bible it says the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. But then it says that God fashioned woman to be his help-mate,” she says, arching her eyebrow with a knowing look. That word, ‘fashioned’ suggests to Anne, that God’s creation of woman was more intentional, as if He were considering what He had forgotten in the first attempt.
“God gave us something very special – the emotional side of Him; He gave us a different way to see outside of just strength, outside of just logic. He gave women a spirit of influence that He didn’t give to man. That influence is doing something for the better. Barbara Bush once said something, ‘we who rock the cradle rule the nation’. Women can make the world a better place. I really believe it starts with us.”
I met Anne through the Mockingbird Society, a local organization working to improve the foster care system. Understanding the effort involved in raising my own children, I wanted to interview someone who was helping raise others. And as with so many of my interviews, I found that the reason that drew me to Ms. Anne was just a slice of what was remarkable about her. In fact, it wasn’t until she had generously shared more than an hour with me that the topic of foster care was ever broached. Before that I got to learn about all the other good work that keeps her up until late at night and rising before 5 in the morning.
“Once a year I take a southern tour and drive to Louisiana or Mississippi – I went to New Orleans after Katrina. We pack up a van with bedding, housewares, kids clothes – whatever I can get, and we just start driving.” Her journey takes her down the country roads of some of the poorest places in this country. “If I see a bad conditioned place, I stop and ask, is there anything we can do for you?
“Once when we were in Mississippi I heard this racket, my, but it was loud. I turned around to find out where the noise was coming from and I saw this little boy pushing the frame of a rusty bicycle,” she says, her beautifully manicured hands providing accompaniment. “It had no wheels, but he was pushing it up the road as if he were riding it. I asked him where he lived and he led us to this house and introduced us to his mother. We told her we came from Seattle to offer help. We went in her house. She was very embarrassed because the place was just horrible – I mean you just could not imagine living in there. And I said, we have several men here with us and they fixed the roof, and we got the kids new bedding, and gave them our last rug. We spent all day with them. Then I asked, was there anything else she needed? The woman said ‘no’ but the little boy stepped forward and said he wanted a bike. So, we called Walmart and arranged for all the kids to have new bikes. But the family had no way of getting to Walmart, so we hired a cab to drive the bikes out to the house. Sometimes it takes a while, but we do everything we can!”
Normally on these southern marathons Anne is joined by 4 – 8 others in the 15-passenger van. “I’m always happy to have people come along, but I tell them, it’s a rough trip. We’re not staying in fancy hotels. Sometimes we’re sleeping in the van. We’re going to work, not to vacation.”
Though even vacations have turned to work for Ms. Anne. “I was in San Diego on vacation with my kids, and I thought, let’s go over to Mexico. And I know it was just the hand of God we ended up in this place. I heard all this crying, and I said to my kids, let’s go over there and check it out. I’m nosy!”, she says, giggling. “And we see these kids, and they are just horribly filthy. They were crying and looked like they weren’t eating well. Well, I learned that the place was an orphanage without much money. The place looked like it needed a good scrubbing. My kids said, ‘mom, we’re on vacation!’ And I said, not today. Today you’re working.
“So we cleaned that place top to bottom. We went across the border and bought every diaper we could buy from K Mart and went back the next day. We brought clothes. And I asked, how much would it cost per month to help support these kids? And I took on seven.” For the last 10 years, Ms. Anne has been sending boxes to this Mexican orphanage. In April, she’ll be going back there again. “I want them to know that I’m not just a sender. I’m going to follow-up.”
Anne and her children at the orphanage in Mexico
About four years ago, Ms. Anne got some help creating a non-profit structure to the work she was doing on her own. The organization is called Hand and Hand. “It’s about helping your neighbor and your neighbor is anybody who needs help.” With a 501(c)(3) she can solicit contributions from local businesses (and individuals). She’ll call the hotels to get sample soaps and hygiene supplies. Target has made contributions, and Pepsi, who has a bottling plant nearby, often supplies beverages and the volunteers to distribute them. She’ll package things up and put a label on the bag that credits the company who donated them. “I want people to know that there are many people helping them.”
And then, as she was preparing to do the next morning, she’ll distribute them.
Doing so isn’t as easy as placing a piece of candy in a Trick or Treat bag. On this Saturday a week before Christmas, Ms. Anne was preparing to feed the homeless under the freeway in downtown Seattle the next morning -- starting at 5 a.m. That’s when she’ll get the chili and coffee going so she can offer warm food and drink to people who have been sleeping in doorways that December night. She has gathered up gloves and hats and scarves, soaps and shampoos. She and the other volunteers will serve under the overpass and then, “we’ll target doorways. We drive down First Avenue and if we see someone who wasn’t able to make it to the feeding we’ll stop the van. I’ve done this enough so I know how to do it right. You can’t just walk up on someone in a doorway because they might have mental health issues. So instead, we just open the van and invite them over. We have hot chili because they need something filling – they may not have eaten the night before.”
Ms. Anne (foreground above) and volunteer crew preparing for street feeding
That was the first item on her to-do list for Saturday. The second, following at 11 a.m. was a holiday party she was organizing for not just her own foster kids, but all the others in the homes that along with hers make up the network for which Ms. Anne serves as the Hub Home. She is at the center of a structure that the Mockingbird Society has pioneered, its intent to support both the kids and the parents who take them in. In her role as the Hub Home, Ms. Anne not only raises her own foster kids, but she serves as a resource and mentor for the other families, and she always keeps two beds open at her house just in case she needs to take in a child for crisis respite care. In anticipation of the holiday party tomorrow, Ms. Anne has been busy trying to secure donated gifts for all the kids, but she has found this year a particularly difficult one. She sadly contemplated the possibility of many disappointed faces.
So, finally we made it to the topic of foster kids, though when I used that term, Ms. Anne quickly corrected me. “These aren’t foster kids, they are my kids. I tell them when they are in my home, they cannot refer to themselves as adopted kids or foster kids. Don’t label yourself like that!” she pauses a moment to shake her head in sadness. “I don’t like that stigma. If they say that to me, then they’ll say that at school, they’ll start to think of themselves like that.”
Anne Travis Barker with a few of her kids
The topic of foster care elicits the fighter in Ms. Anne, who has taken in children for more than 25 years. “Trust me, I do it because of the children, not because of the system. It’s a system that needs changing,” says Anne sitting up straight and looking in my eyes with conviction, “and I plan to be one person to make it change!” It’s a reason she strongly supports the Mockingbird Society “because they are trying to make it better.”
Her frustration stems from the fact that the system has lost its compass – it no longer points to the kids who are in need of help, but to the adults who manage it. According to Ms. Anne, they have more concern for their own careers than for the kids they are supposed to be serving. “You have all these people who are promotionally motivated, but they’re not children motivated.”
She illustrates her frustration with stories of kids she knows who have been shuffled from home to home with no recognition of the need for family stability or the child’s special issues. Throughout her stories, there are frequent mentions of her kids. Now, I know she has two kids of her own (“I had a hard time having kids – I lost a lot of them. I had two but I always wanted 12 children.”), so I stopped her to ask, just how many kids have you fostered?
For the first time in our interview, Ms. Anne is quiet. “How many?” she asks herself, as if disbelieving such a question could exist. “Oh my lord I couldn’t even begin to count.” She bows her head, leaning it against one hand while the fingers of the other move quickly in succession. The quiet continues and I see her lips move slightly. Finally, she looks up and says, “well, if you don’t count those who came for just respite care, say all the kids who have been with me for 90 days or more, I don’t know, maybe 60?”
60 children. Not for a hotel stay, but for parental support, guidance, doctor’s appointments, mental health evaluations, school lunches, teenage parties, college applications, and love.
Within that number there is sadness. “Jamaal was killed on Memorial Day in a car accident. My other son was hit by a drunk driver; my littlest boy developed cancer; I have a daughter that had uterine cancer….” her list continues. But there are the bright spots as well – the daughter she has had for 10 years is getting ready to start community college. “She wants to be a pediatrician.”
For each of these kids and all the others she touches, Anne strives to find the unique value within them. “That’s why we got so involved in Northwest Junior Orchestra – that’s a way out for some of these kids. We have a boy who has had some real problems, but he’s an excellent musician. We tell him, you’re not a dummy, you’ve got talent.
“We expose these kids to the world outside this neighborhood; we help them discover beauty. We go to the Nutcracker every year, we expose them to new things – let’s go to Jefferson Park and see the beautiful trees and learn to play golf -- we were able to get a young man into golf, he loves it, and he earned his own golf set.”
Seeing crime as a frequent result of dropping out of school, she started Way Out Tutoring in her building on Thursday nights. Two teachers, an elementary teacher and a Garfield High School teacher donate their time and she gets money for school supplies from the City.
“And for each of these kids I don’t have to worry about him robbing me some day; I don’t have to worry about him attacking me someday. Folks have got to understand, if you don’t make a change, you’re going to face these people at some point.” When you do face them, figures Ms. Anne, it’s a whole lot better if they’re on the right path.
Some times Ms. Anne does have the chance to see the people she has touched in the past. “This young man came by here and he said, you put your arms around me and I couldn’t believe it. And he said, what should I do now? And I said, you put your arms around the next man and it all gets better.”
That’s what Ms. Anne did with me. At the end of this wonderful conversation, more than once having felt blessed to have shared the time with someone who, but for this web site, I would have never met, Ms. Anne folded me in her arms with a hug every bit as warm as those she undoubtedly delivered to 60 or more kids.
And I put my arms around you.
If you would like to support the work done by Ms. Anne and Hand to Hand, she eagerly welcomes more helpers, to solicit and pick-up donations, assist with the early morning feedings, pack hygiene bags.
And she could really use some help setting up a simple web site that might help inform people of what she needs help with and when. If you have skills in that area, leave a comment below and I’ll try to hook you up.
Meanwhile, financial contributions can be mailed to: Hand and Hand, PO Box 28177 Seattle, WA 98118
Ms. Anne’s not-so secrets for How She Does It:
- “I was married for nearly 30 years and granted the highest position in the world – Motherhood. I believe it is though my children that the journey of life really started – consider just for a moment, that there is a little person who is counting on you for everything. One day I really thought about this – the power of making the world, the place I live, other people’s lives better by what I did or didn’t do with my little person. I finally put a name to this revelation – it’s called the power of One.
- “Sometimes life can get overwhelming with problems, injustice, bad laws – these things don’t get corrected because of the lawyer, senator or other groups. It is my feeling that if each of us do all we can do – everything gets better. The power of One starts and ends with you and me.”
- She works at having balance in her life. “We feed on the street, we have a party for foster kids, but I need to go get my nails done! I get to take a steam bath and I’m not taking my phone. These are my Anne Times – I think I’m better person when I take time for me.”
- Anne’s mother has been a huge influence in her life. Though they were poor growing up, “we always had somebody live with us, she always did things for other people. My mom always pressed us to become educated. She would tell us, ‘I don’t want you to ever carry anything heavier than a pencil -- that’s the heaviest thing I want you to lift in life. Sit at a desk and earn a living.’ They knew the fields.”
- “I’m not perfect. It’s something I tell the girls I mentor. Obesity is an issue. It’s one of those health problems that hits our community hard: obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, breast and prostate cancer. I’m learning to eat more healthy even when I’m eating Black food.” Removing the pre-frying of collard greens and eating carrot cake made without sugar are two recent revelations to her.
- She doesn’t like talking about herself, claiming that her good deeds are only possible because of the people who work with her. “Everybody wants to be famous -- why? They’re glory seekers and I never want that. I just want life to be better for everybody and I think that can happen. I want justice, I want it to be right.
- “I’m not as organized as I want to be. I do a calendar for a whole year and I don’t let too many things disrupt that calendar. Sometimes I examine myself, did I miss something? I try to keep my eye on the priority and let everything adjust.
- “I can go two or three days and not really sleep.”
What books has Ms. Anne read recently?
- Re-reading The Shack, by William P. Young. A father tries to unravel the murder of his daughter after he receives a suspicious note, apparently from God. “It shows his journey. I feel like I’m on a journey.”
- Shopgirl by Steve Martin. “You have to read things that stimulate you and keep you grounded.”
- “And of course, I read my Bible, because it keeps me grounded. Especially the Proverbs -- you gotta have that remembrance.”
Whom does Ms. Anne want me to interview next?
- Pam, who started NW junior orchestra. “Out of nothing she has gone to people and gotten new instruments, gotten musicians to donate their time; she even has her grandkids teaching. She has helped a lot of kids stay out of trouble through music.”
What ahead for Anne Travis-Barker?
- She’s really into Egyptian history -- her next adventure is to travel to Egypt
- She has a long list of certificates and diplomas, including a PhD in Theology. The next thing she wants to learn? Glass blowing.
- She’s working to buy a new place that will have space in it to do the things she currently does, but that can also provide a meal and a bed for the homeless each night.