Jim Sheehan founded the Center for Justice nine years ago. Today the woman who embodies its heart and soul is a forty-five year-old grandmother, who loves her motorcycle.
Because of where she’s been and how she’s been there, you could look almost anywhere in Carol Weltz’s life story and draw a lesson. She would be the first to admit that some of the scenes are pretty grim, and that the lessons didn’t always sink in. At least not right away. And she would tell you this with a nod, a smile, and then release you from the awkward weight of it with a bounce of her eyebrow, and a short, self-deprecating laugh.
“I can give you the powder puff nice kind of story,” she says, “or I can give you the story.”
The real story is the one that includes her in a twenty year old photo she still carries in her wallet. It’s the photo where she’s wearing the red, string-top dress. It’s the one that reveals the gray skin on her malnourished body, her half-opened eyes registering a deep vacancy.
The story includes the harrowing night that her second husband, after getting violently drunk, proceeded to shoot up the bedroom in their east Spokane home and play Russian Roulette with her head. They were both sliding backwards that night. Not long afterward, she would get a call from friends who’d found him dead on their floor from drugs and alcohol. He was only 36.
Thirteen years ago she committed to being clean, and the real story became an ascension toward the formidable person she is today. And still it was along that transcendent curve, two years after her husband died, that it still seemed to be slipping away. Like this moment when she worked in a grocery store.
“You get one chance to do the little test, you know.”
She’s talking about the exam with the stopwatch she needed to pass to go from sacking groceries at the Safeway store on north Hamilton Street, to being a checker.
“And we’re in the middle of a store. And all of a sudden it’s not about whether you can scan groceries. She set that timer and it was, ‘are you going to be able to take care of your kids, are you going to be able to do any of this stuff?’ And boy, I just started weeping and crying. There in the middle of the Safeway store. These poor people. And she stopped the timer. I tell her ‘I can’t do this, you know.’ And she started me again. It took me three times to pass this stupid little test.”
“I came to Spokane twenty years ago in shackles and an orange jump suit, with little floppy slippers on, with a judge telling me you will not leave this treatment center. You will get clean and sober or you will spend the rest of your life in jail.”
Suellen Pritchard coordinates the Community Advocacy program for the Center for Justice and it’s not a coincidence that she was the first CFJ staff member to come to know about Carol Weltz. It was a decade ago that Suellen, then in the throes of her own drug abuse problems, literally pushed through the door into Superior Court Judge Jim Murphy’s chambers and pleaded with him to give her a way to keep her life together, and keep custody of her two children. Judge Murphy sent her to the Center for Justice, which had only just set up shop in its old location near the Spokane train station.
To say that the Center’s relationship with Suellen, a professional paralegal, is a win-win success story only puts it mildly. But it’s also true that recovery from substance abuse isn’t one receding date on a calendar, but an ongoing commitment to keeping the demons on the other side of the street. And so that’s how Suellen came to know about Carol Weltz, from listening to Carol share her story with others fighting alcohol and drug addiction.
“She’s very adamant about her recovery,” Suellen says. “Just in her life experiences and the tribulations she goes through. And the trials she goes through and how she handles them was very, very solid.”
The Community Advocacy program is now in its fourth year and it signifies a key adjustment that the Center, under Breean Beggs’s leadership, has made to try to fill a gap in the community’s social safety net. The Center still makes most of its news on high profile issues often involving what the lawyers call “impact litigation.” But JIm Sheehan’s vision leans heavily on bringing the experience of justice to every body. In simplest terms, CFJ was turning a lot of needy people away because their problems with the law don’t rise to the threshold for a lawsuit. By launching the Community Advocacy program, the Center made a quietly bold decision to serve struggling people and families by intervening with negotiation and mediation and a host of other pavement level skills.
Before the Community Advocacy program came into being the Center handled twenty intakes a week. (The intake process consists of listening to people and registering the details of their problems and needs). But less than 5 percent were referred to a CFJ attorney because of the limited amount of attorney time. Today, the Center still handles roughly twenty intakes a week. But now, using the Community Advocacy model, almost half of the people who come to the Center for help get some form of assistance beyond the initial meeting. The help ranges from informal counseling by CA staff, up to formal referrals to CFJ lawyers. As a result of the ongoing evolution of the program the number of case files opened and worked by Suellen Pritchard and her Community Advocacy staff has grown dramatically and more than doubled in 2007 alone. This results in literally hundreds of additional people getting help every year, that would not have gotten help before.
One thing Suellen Pritchard knew about Carol Weltz is that she’d seen the pavement and knew how to work from it. Just a few months into the transition to the new program, Suellen saw Carol’s name on a list of interviewees from Eastern Washington University who wanted to do their social work practicums at the Center for Justice. She was elated.
“I just knew she’d would be a great fit for Community Advocacy,” Suellen says, “just because of the people and the situations that we run across on a daily basis. What a great advocate for those people. I mean, she’s phenomenal.”
This is where Carol Weltz’s story gets beautifully complicated. It’d be easier to understand the way she has flourished at the Center for Justice and elsewhere if it rested on one epiphany, and a wholesale rejection of a person she decided not to become. It’s not that simple, though, and the grain of the complexity is deeply revealing because it has given her what she knows about how to reverse the downward spiral some people get caught in as they try to turn their lives around.
“Carol has been a pillar of strength for us. She taught us how to appreciate ourselves and be good to ourselves and in the mix of things be more compassionate with people. That’s what Carol taught all of us. We’ve all been blessed by her.” –Suellen Pritchard, CFJ Community Advocacy coordinator
Carol Weltz grew up in a poor family in central Ellensburg, her family’s plight made worse by a crippling injury inflicted on her father. But for a girl so anxious to get out of town, she insists she’s never forgotten the generosity her parents exhibited to neighbors and strangers, even though they had seemingly so little to spare.
“What I got from my father is that if somebody’s hurting, you just bring them home and take care of them,” she says. “My father’s influence in my life is huge. Even when I was messed up, I was trying. I’ve always been involved in non-profits. I’m a master food preserver and I’ve been involved in trying to teach people to feed themselves and their families. I’ve done pottery classes and creative programs for elders. Even when I was using.”
When she looks back, she makes no excuses for the hard parts that were self-inflicted. But her tone changes when she talks about the obstacles she’s had to confront after she put the booze and the drugs away in 1994.
The person who found herself in tears in the middle of the Spokane grocery store, with the timer running, had already pulled herself up off the mat at least once before. She and her second husband, before the tumble back toward the abyss, had a vision for themselves. The plan was for both of them to work together in the insurance business. He had his license. She would get hers. So she went to the insurance school, to become qualified.
“I did all the schooling,” she remembers, “and I passed with flying colors.”
Except they wouldn’t give her the license. It was the felony on her record from 1988, from the day she was arrested in Ellensburg in a car with cocaine and a loaded, unregistered gun. She did a month and a half in jail, paid $390 in fines, and a 12 month probation with required treatment. But then, years later, it was as though the insurance industry had convicted her all over again. No one had even bothered to inform her she could be denied the license even after doing the course work and passing the test. She was angry and crushed, and she slid backwards.
“The last time I drank,” she remembers about that period. “It was a horrendous night. My husband was still alive but I felt like God had just shown me. You know, Carol, let me show you what your life is going to look like. And he just gave me a vision of my life. And it was just so disturbing, and so pathetic, and so, I mean it was horrible. I still see the picture. It was clear in my mind. ‘This is what it’s going to look like, Carol.’ And I remember saying, ‘You can have my stinking life, I’m done.’ Since that point, it’s just been this climb and being involved. But again with the record, and all, and trying to come out of that, even an old record, it’s very difficult.”
She started the climb over, with the felony record still limiting her options, by taking the grocery sacking job at the Safeway store. As much as she remembers how shaken and panicked she was during the check stand test, the reason she even remembers to share the story is to make a point about the examiner’s generosity, and how much it meant to her. The woman stopped the clock, and gave the test over, and then over again.
“I’m trying to treat the person like I’d want to be treated as I’m walking in the door. And knowing that really we’re just one connected to another and that if you’re hurting, then I’m hurting. That as long as there’s one of us who’s still not well, that we haven’t done enough. We need to keep bringing people in. So, that’s my mindset when I’m going in, that this is my sister, my brother. And, you know, we need to finish the work here. So, how can I help you? You’re worthy for me just because you’re a child of God.”
“I talk to a lot of homeless people,” she adds. “I make sure I touch them, because people don’t touch homeless people, you know, they’re dirty, they’re smelly, so I always make sure that I touch the people I come in contact with who don’t get that. You know, it just says I value you, it’s important.”
It didn’t take long after Carol started working at the Center for others to notice what Suellen Pritchard already knew about her. It’s an energy and a spontaneity coupled with a deeply spiritual presence.
“I notice her fearlessness,” attorney Terri Sloyer says. “It doesn’t occur to her that someone would tell her no, or occur to her that she can’t access a resource she needs to help people, whatever the issue is. So there’s this fearlessness in the doing but also the spiritual element in her being present.”
“I talk to my mother sometimes,” Carol says. “She’s very religious. One of the things she doesn’t understand is how I can go into a crack house or a shooting gallery, and be okay and why I can reach out my hand to somebody and be okay. And I tell her, ‘well, it’s because God designed me to do that. All my experience has brought me here today to enable me to work with these people. He uses my brokenness for his power, and he uses it all the time. I couldn’t do anything I do without that experience. That experience is freedom to me, really it is. It is who I am.”
“Most of the time when people come to us they’re really hopeless. Even when you see there’s a solution, they don’t have that piece that says ‘this might work for me.’ You know? ‘Sure, I know that you’re going to get justice, and someone else is going to get justice, but nobody is willing to stand on the line with me to make sure I get justice.’ What I offer when I deal with people is hope. And I’ve learned to do that effectively because I remember how hopeless it was for me.”
It took an accident to redirect Carol’s life path toward the Center for Justice. As the single mother of four children, even the checking job at Safeway didn’t pay enough. So she started moonlighting as a cook at Dolly’s restaurant on north Washington street. She’d only been working there a few weeks when the owner approached her and asked her if she would buy the place. The offer jarred her at first. She thought it was ridiculous. But after sleeping on it she saw it as an opportunity and leveraged the equity in her home to get a loan.
Her new business flourished, even if her business model was not quite what you’d expect.
“It’s not about the cooking,” Carol says, “When it’s about the cooking the job is really a drag. But when it’s about the people, and seeing how we can help each other out, it becomes a joy to be there and you create this nice little family because it’s a small restaurant. It only holds fifty people.”
What she remembers as her “nice little business” allowed her to do things she’d always wanted to do. Like become an ardent scuba diver. She was in a car with a friend on their way to a winter dive in Puget Sound when her companion lost control near Quincy, and the car began to roll. She broke her clavicle. The injury, among other things, changed the business equation at Dolly’s. She was unable to put in her share of the hard physical labor required. She began to lose money, and was forced to give the business back to its original owner.
She decided to study to become a nurse, but here again the criminal record became an obstacle.
“I spent a year and a half doing the pre-reqs and then they told me that even though I’d been up front about my felony it wouldn’t be a good plan for me, that it would be very difficult to go into the field. So that’s when I decided to go into social work.”
Even then, as a social work student at Eastern Washington University, she was still limited by her record when it came time to find a place where she could do her hundreds of hours of required field work. A couple places would take her. One was a needle exchange program. The other was the Center for Justice.
“One of the promises of the program I practice is that you will not regret the past, that you will see how your experience can benefit others. I believe that I was known before I ever came here and that my path was set out.”
As it happens, the non-profit law firm to which Carol applied to do her practicum hours also specializes in what it known as “expungement”–the purging of felonies from individuals’ records so that they can get on with productive lives unhindered by long ago mistakes. So the record-clearing process for Carol has a happy ending. The paperwork was finished this spring and, in early June, she walked out a courtroom in Ellensburg with the felony off her record for good.
“One of the reasons I love it here,” she says, “is because the guy walks in off the street and they [Suellen Pritchard and her staff] listen to the story. And they glean out of it the things that are wrong; the things that are happening at an institutional and systematic level that need to be taken out of there and dealt with. It’s ‘how can we help him personally.’ We work at all different levels. That’s what I love about this place.”
It’s the love flowing in the other direction that’s so hard to put into words.
Not everybody who works at CFJ gets to witness Carol’s gifts as a recovery role model and as a problem-solver in the clenches of helping clients. The Carol the rest of us get to see is the one who regularly leaves a crock of homemade soup for us in the lunch room, and who invariably causes chests to heave with laughter at the Monday circle gatherings as she talks about her weekend exploits, whether it’s dancing with grandchildren, or her motorcycling adventures. What all of us get to feed off of is what’s hardest to describe, the human tempo of her presence and a charisma that lifts everybody’s boat.
Still, it takes an even broader view to appreciate what Carol Weltz really means to the place.
The Center for Justice of 2008 is far beyond the then-new venture that Jim Sheehan launched nearly a decade ago. To become, as Breean Beggs puts it, “the Community’s law firm,” the Center has begun to taken on the challenge of reinventing itself. There are more cases and people to process and manage, and just the logistical processes needed for those tasks can seem to be at battle with the idealistic, intuitive and tightly knit culture of the place. A big underlying question is yet to be answered. Spokane may be changing a lot, but it’s still an open question as to whether a traditionally conservative city will embrace and support such an audacious experiment to profoundly change what’s possible.
The pressures associated with the Center’s challenges and changes wouldn’t surprise an outsider, but that doesn’t make them any less real to the insiders.
It was through that door, at front end of the reinvention process, that Carol Weltz walked in to do her practicum. Talk about perfect timing.
“I think that sometimes with Carol, she’ll realize, it’s almost like she realizes the stress level in the office is getting to the point where we need to step off the merry go round,” Suellen says. “We need to get off the merry-go-round and we need to stop the madness. It’s like she puts a brake on our stress level.”
Speaking of merry-go-rounds, a typical Carol Weltz story is the one that community outreach coordinator Holly Fauerso tells in which Carol hijacked one of our office manager’s carefully mapped out noon-time walks, this one through Riverfront Park.
“So, we’re almost past the carousel, and Carol like looks back and then grabs both of our arms. She yells ‘come on!’ and starts running to the carousel and says ‘we’re riding on the carousel!’ And we’re both saying, ‘we don’t have any money, what are we doing?’ The people inside we’re watching and they were laughing, because here are these grown adults, all of the sudden sprinting to get to the carousel because we didn’t have much time. So she paid for us to ride the carousel, and then she says, ‘we needed that!’”
“She’s an amazing presence,” Suellen says, “like a pillar of strength for us. When I got really, really sick last October I had to take off a whole bunch of time, about forty five days. I don’t know what would have happened to Community Advocacy had she not been here. She just stepped into the role and took over. I mean it was added hours on top of her practicum hours, she went to full time. It jeopardized her schooling for sure. That whole quarter she had the students all on her own and ran the whole program.”
She says she only needs about six hours of sleep a night. During the week, when she’s not studying or working her practicum hours at the Center, Carol Weltz is working with women and children at the same treatment center in Browne’s Addition that she was dispatched to twenty years ago. It’s a hectic schedule, and she also makes time to volunteer in her east central neighborhood and serve on the city’s Human Services Advisory Board.
“I’m high energy,” she says, “if there’s not something going on I create something.”
I couldn’t help but ask her, given her dawn to dusk work load, why she just doesn’t stay in bed on weekends.
“You know,” she replied, “I used to stay home shut up in rooms, drinking, in dark bar rooms, drinking. I spent a lot of time in the dark. There’s nothing I would rather do than be out on the water, making some coffee on the boat, hanging out, doing my nails. It really is just a piece of heaven out there.”
The rest of the story about that picture in her wallet is that she has used it, often, as something of a passport.
By the time you read this, Carol Weltz’s tenure as a master’s level student at the Center for Justice will be over. The formality of that transition and its paperwork clock are, at best, bittersweet. But trust me, it’s not going to be an easy day on our end, no matter what we will say to each other and to her about what she has meant to us and what we’re trying to become. We’ll take some pictures, but we won’t need them to remind us of who she is, and what she leaves behind for us.
“I know God is going to place me exactly where I’m supposed to be and that my job is to suit up, show up, and do the next right thing. And that he will show me where I need to go. I’m not really worried about a job. I’m not really worried about anything. I know that he’s got my back.”