Sally Hughes finds beauty and renewal in spots where most folks would see only poverty, suffering and hopelessness.
Last week, the Spokane Valley Kiwanis Club surprised Hughes with its Everyday Hero Award – honoring her continued, exceptional volunteerism.
In her off hours, the 55-year-old Spokane Valley school teacher has served struggling people at home and at a South African home for profoundly disabled orphans, in desolate Mexican villages and in the poverty-stricken Dominican Republic.
Whether she’s building latrines, installing fresh water cisterns, building medical clinics, serving meals to the homeless or collecting shoes for the destitute, she meets beautiful spirits at work.
“You think you’re going to help someone and in the end, you find out you’re the recipient yourself. It’s spiritually renewing,” said Hughes, a seventh-grade teacher at Horizon Middle School.
At least once a year, she tries to volunteer in a needy country.
“I feel like when I go, I’m on a journey. I never quite know where it’s going to take me mentally and spiritually. But in the end, it’s always a great place,” Hughes said in a phone interview.
In a nominating letter, Margaret Patterson commended Hughes’ optimistic, get-it-done attitude.
“She doesn’t just ‘feel’ for others, she commits her energies…to help others,” Patterson wrote.
Here’s a perfect example: After being introduced to a quadriplegic, malnourished teenager while volunteering in the Dominican Republic, Hughes discovered the then 17-year-old Ricky (who goes by just his first name) had taught himself to paint by gripping a paintbrush between his teeth.
“I was amazed at his artistic ability,” Hughes said. “I told him: ‘Ricky, you just keep painting. I don’t know how this will work, but I think I can sell these for you.’ ”
Back home, Hughes found an area printing company willing to help her create a series of greeting cards featuring Ricky’s vivid paintings of butterflies, flowers, trees and peace symbols.
A Web site designer helped Hughes launch an Internet site that sells Ricky’s note cards.
“In the last 18 months, we’ve raised $15,000. Thanks to the money, Ricky has had (his first) medical evaluation, a portable lift (to help him get out of bed) and a wheelchair. And it’s not because of me,” said Hughes.
“It’s because of all kinds of volunteers. All I did was bring home the story. And the story grabs people and they want to help,” she said.
In fact, the Itron Co. sent Ricky’s cards at holiday time. And some of Hughes’ students sell the cards, too.
She never boasts about her charity work. But if her pupils ask about it, she shares details from her trips.
“I don’t push it. But I hope that it’s a model for them and that they realize it’s something they can do in their future, too,” she said.
But you don’t have to leave home to help out, she said. There are plenty of places right here in need of volunteers.
“I say, don’t hesitate. Jump in and just do in. We’re all links of a chain. No one link is strong by itself, but together, there’s such power in what we can do for each other,” she said.
While area schools are taking spring break, Hughes is manning a chow line that dishes up 900 meals a day outside a tent city near New Orleans. She paid her own travel expenses. She said she’s looking forward to giving $230 – all collected by the Spokane Valley Kiwanis Club – to one of the area’s hurricane-hit schools still in need of supplies.