Long before this Great Recession, Mike and Cathy Sacco were living the deeper values now emerging for many in these tough economic times.
They are grateful. They value people over things.
In 1999, Mike was hit by a car while a crew leader for Washington’s Department of Transportation. He endured nearly a dozen surgeries; rehab took two years.
For 22 years, Cathy has helped people with developmental disabilities find employment.
Their experiences give them a calm, reassuring perspective on surviving chaotic, troubled times.
Cathy, 55, and Mike, 58, sat down together for this Wise Words interview wth Rebecca Nappi. It was published in The Spokesman-Review July 3, 2010.Cathy: I come from a large family. I have eight brothers and sisters – there’s six boys and three girls, in 13 years. So we’re all close in age. It was great growing up in a big family, because we had our own team for everything. It was fun. When I look back on childhood and how money played a role, we had enough but no excess. We benefited from being a large family, especially in terms of education, because of the Catholic school system and how that worked. We ate a lot of casseroles, things you could make in quantities. Wore a lot of hand-me downs. I certainly had an awareness, at a very young age, of my father and his working and all that he provided for us. And it wasn’t from him so much. It was more from my mom acknowledging how he worked to provide for a household of 11. He was an insurance broker and worked very hard to be an insurance broker out of 50 of the states and out of Lloyds of London. He worked really hard. My mom was always deferring to giving him a break when he got home. Also, I happened to be the oldest daughter so I did a lot of grocery shopping with her. We had to go to the store often, because there were so many of us, but she’d say this is great, we have food on the table, meat on the weekend. She always talked about that and the fact she was home with us and the value of that. My mom appreciated that. She would barter. She’d talk to the butcher at about “I need the bigger one.” We always needed the biggest roast. We always needed the biggest of everything, even the loaf of bread. She would say, “Johnny, you know, any kind of deal you can give me on that.” She was there so often, a regular customer, he always said, “Oh, yeah, we’ll just cut some cost off.” She was always frugal with our money. We grew up middle class, I guess.Mike: The same stories Cathy tells hold with my mom, too. She was really frugal. We had enough. There were four of us. One sister, and mom and dad and I. Dad was in sales. When I went to school, my mom went back to work as a secretary. So it was a different dynamic than a lot of my friends who had stay-at-home moms. It created some interesting situations at home, too. When they both came home from work, in many homes in the neighborhood, that when the moms did their thing about dinner and the dishes afterward. Well, in my family, my mom had just come home from work, too. She was tired. I got to see some negotiating between married adults. And there was “enough,” but sometimes there would be times like this, there would be layoffs. It was typically my dad who would be unemployed for awhile. I always had the sense that things weren’t OK with my mom and dad anymore. It was a strain on them because it was a strain on the children. There were a couple of layoffs I remember. He had a coffee route, and he went all over Eastern Washington, North Idaho and Western Montana. And then that went away, and he was a couple of months without a position and then he went to work for Sears. There were a couple of other times, I remember. He was never unemployed for very long. That’s a difference between then and today. There were jobs out there. You just had to go out and beat the bricks until someone said yes to you. He didn’t talk about it, not to me. And I don’t think my sister, either. We would kind of get the report on where he’d been that day. We were always at the dinner table together, the four of us, every night. And so we’d hear secondhand where he’d been, where he’d put in applications, how he felt about things. I think my dad was impatient during those times. I think he felt like he wasn’t holding up his end of the family finances and it bothered him. Did I internalize that worry? I think I did. It felt like my vision wasn’t as clear and I couldn’t see as far. And just this vague sense of things aren’t OK right now compared with when everyone was working. When he wasn’t working, I had this vague sense of unease.Cathy: What did I learn from childhood about resources that I still use today? You can look at things around the premise of what’s functional and what’s needed and count that as abundance, as opposed to looking at all the other things you might want. So what I learned is what is really needed – food and shelter and then of course, love. Those were provided for us, not in a fancy way, but in a practical way. That’s how I came into our marriage. It’s certainly how we’ve raised our children. Not looking at what you want, and all these desires, but being practical and looking at what’s needed. I am very blessed, because that is what was provided for me in terms of growing up, and then we’ve been able to provide it for ourselves and our children. You might look at our house and think we don’t have that philosophy. Although everything inside in our house is very simple. A simple design. Not extravagant furniture or anything. You’d have to be with us and be a part of us, having dialogue and relationships with our family members and how we encourage nieces and nephews and sons and daughters and granddaughters around those issues. We are a very generous family, even though there is no one in my family who is really wealthy. We give away in all kinds of ways, from what everyday I’m aware is of excess. We have an abundance. I can give of my time and energy and of our finances to those who might need it. You’d have to know us. Not just see us or our house.Mike: What did I learn from childhood about resources? Once Cathy and I were married, I did not leave a job – ever – until I had another job or a promotion. I think that’s a big thing I took from growing up. And another thing that comes as much from my extended family, the crazy Italians, is that it’s not all about money. And particularly, when things are not so good, that’s when we rely on the things that are important. Family, church. We were always in church, every week. That never changed. And my parents loved to go out. They were very social. They did a lot with my dad’s family. I grew up every holiday running wild with all my cousins. It was great. So we grew up with this idea that we have to put food on the table and a roof over our heads, but money is not everything. Family love is important and that spiritual component.Mike: How did my accident clarify things? One of the first things I noticed when I woke up – which was maybe seven or 10 days after the accident and then it was few more days before I had any understanding this was serious. One of the things that would happen is I would wake up early. We were in Sacred Heart and my room faced South of Spokane. This early morning, ambient light would be coming through the window. Somebody would bring me a cup of coffee. Every morning there would be Cathy or our son Joe or our daughter Rose sitting in the chair with me, sleeping. I was never alone. They loved me and they were going to great lengths to support me. There were nurses. There was staff. They didn’t have to do that, but they were there just to make sure that if I woke up in the middle of the night, there was somebody there to talk to, somebody who I loved and I knew loved me. I would just be overcome with gratitude. Which is interesting from an objective standpoint. You are looking at somebody who has had four surgeries and more to come and a significant amount of pain and an uncertain future and what I was feeling was gratitude, overwhelming gratitude. It was a trauma. I needed a lot of support. That comes from having firm relationships and I had those with my children, and in those days, with the volleyball community in Spokane. And from my friends, my extended family and Cathy’s siblings. And all of that comes under the heading of spirituality. All of my life comes under that heading. I was finally going to be discharged after being in there for a month and somebody said, “What’s it been like? You’ve been in there for a month.” I said, “It’s been a spiritual journey.” I remember them being really surprised by that, but it was true, and it still is true. There were seven surgeries in the first 25 days. Then there were four more in the next several months. One month in the hospital. And then another month, I was not able to get out of bed. And Cathy orchestrated a hospital room in our house. And lots of people came over, Cathy’s brothers, and some friends built a wheelchair ramp, even though I was still a long ways away from a wheelchair. The rehab took almost two years. The gratitude just comes up and grabs me by the throat, in much the same way that grief or loss grabs me by the throat. I lost my dad during that time. I went to his funeral in a wheelchair. The last time I saw him, the night before he died, we were both in wheelchairs. It was very confusing because the gratitude and grief I felt felt very much the same. That kind of choking, tearful upwelling. And yes, I absolutely feel grateful. It’s that Lance Armstrong thing where he credits his cancer with making him the person who he is, much more than being an athlete makes him who he is. And I feel the same way. It was a watershed event in our lives, and it’s brought me closer to the sacred.Mike: How can people support those struggling in this recession? Be a good listener. It’s one of the most important things. And we don’t give enough weight to the everyday kind of trauma, like a job loss or being unemployed or losing an elderly parent. How many things do our children go through that brings up grief? You didn’t make the team carried some sense of loss for that child. Even growing into puberty is a monstrous thing. Life is full of adversity. It’s the way it is. We can’t be too quick to get over it and move on but giving it some weight and talking about it and listening. Mine trauma was very splashy. It was in the newspapers. Everyone knew. It was “Maybe he’s not going to make it.” And then it was “maybe he’s not going to have both of his legs.” It was a profound trauma, and there was a lot of support from all different places. When it’s the everyday kind, there’s a tendency for the people who could support you to say, “Get over it. Move on.” That’s not the right start. The right start is grief and really giving voice to that and having someone there to listen to you. That’s critical.Cathy: What I would advise in terms of support is to pull them in, ask them to help, advocate with and for them as valued contributors to your own lives … and their communities.Cathy: This was also instilled in us growing up: Work and your contribution to your family and community is a given. It’s not an expectation. It’s a standard of integrity. There was so much taught to us by our parents and family but also by our education about reciprocity. When you give it away, you receive it tenfold. I had lots of experiences of that growing up. I took it into adulthood. I have never approached any employment as anything beneath. I believe that working and having a paycheck is one of those things that give us the power to make a choice about our quality of life. I happened to have spent 22 years working with individuals who have been denied that choice. They haven’t had the gifts and grace I’ve had. When I think of the work I do, I hold onto doing away with the concept that I have somehow earned what I get to be involved in. And if you don’t get to be involved with a job that you haven’t done the right things to earn it. I now understand it completely differently. It has nothing to do with us. It’s a grace. At this moment, there are some people – through no fault of their own – are not having the grace of unemployment. I work with a population that has always struggled with that and are just now starting to make progress around them having the same opportunities that you and I have from employment. The recession happens and there’s people who have lost their job and my day-to-day experience is working with most everyone who have not had opportunities to have jobs. Work is essential to well-being and balance and wholeness in your life. There is so much that happens by being employed that is denied if you’re not. The interaction, the self-esteem, valuing yourself, seeing your place as a community member, contributing. We’ve taught a lot of people with disabilities to be receivers, and then we put them in the adult world not prepared to be givers. That’s a piece we have to turn around. When they get an opportunity to give their skills and abilities, they just excel. For example, when I first met Chris he was in high school, had never had a job. He came from a family where employment was expected. He had a seizure disorder, and the seizures had been happening since he was a child. He worked really hard to convince everyone that this job that he really wanted was physical. He wanted to do something physical for his job. Everyone had safety cautions around it, but he really did convince everybody. He works at a warehouse supply store. He has a very physical job. He’s a young, social guy. He relates to his family in a different way now. He’s a peer. He’s one of the family members who is employed. No. 1, his patience to go through all he did to get where he is. I can’t imagine. The interaction with him changed my life. Because of how he could endure, and be patient and struggle through to employment, which we could all see was an effort, and we somehow take it for granted and don’t have that same perspective. I know he has an impact on his customers. I’ve heard from his coworkers and bosses the impact he has. To see him work his day and then for me, in my selfishness, to think that somehow in my life have struggles just doesn’t mesh. That’s what he and many like him remind us. We do have abundance, we are blessed and have graces. Individuals with disabilities who are successfully employed really do model for us the value of employment every single day. You would think we would get it. We’re the ones educated. We’ve had the opportunities around employment. I find Chris and many like him really model that for me. hen a person gets a job it is so obvious how important their job is to them. I believe it comes down to two factors. They are proud of themselves and they know they are valued. That doesn’t happen often with individuals that typically are discounted as contributors to our communities. That is why they radiate a positive approach to their day… and that radiation becomes infectious to others!Mike: Why is gratitude so important? From a lot of different faith traditions, gratitude is seen as a benchmark of living a sacred life, whether you’re in a monastery or a householder like we are, living in the secular world, being grateful is where we want to be. That’s the lens through which we should look. Certainly for Cathy and I, we had this sense of scale when we were first married. We had very little money. It was only through some help of our parents we were able to buy our first home. That was a common story then. The concept of entitlement has been around for a long time. I see young people who want a house like our fourth house, and they want it now. And that’s not necessarily the way it works. I can remember each of our houses. Once we were moved and had things put away, we were so grateful to have this great house. Now looking back, the first one wasn’t really that great. But it was good enough to raise our children for many years, and the neighborhood was filled with children and that was a plus. At every step along the way, for us, there was a very clear sense of gratitude from both of us. We have this thing now we say to each other when we’re in a good place or we’re especially relaxed or when we travel together, we say, “Look where we are” as an expression of gratitude.Mike: There’s something I do, and people are always so surprised by it. I try to catch people doing things right. Whether it’s the intern at the gym who is disinfecting the balance balls, and we joke together: “This probably wasn’t what you envisioned when you wanted to be a personal trainer, is it?” But it’s important and I say, “Thank you for doing it, because it is really important and this is part of this future, if this is your job. Sometimes when we’re at work, we have to do things we don’t like.” When someone makes a mocha as chocolatey as I like it, which is ridiculously chocolatey, I let them know. “This is really great, thank you, you’ve invented a whole new shade of brown.” I coached girls volleyball for a number of years. I was never the best coach in term of Xs and Os, but we won an incredible number of ballgames, because every time anyone did something well, whether it resulted in a point or not, we celebrated together. Even getting to the end of the work week, it’s still our Friday night date. We meet, have a drink and appetizer together before we go home. It’s Friday, we have a weekend now. What’s the reaction? Always thank you. I rode an elevator with a nurse one day, this had nothing to do with my injury. I was visiting someone. She was clearly burdened with something. I asked her, “Are you doing OK?” She said no. There were policy changes and more paperwork. I told her I spent a month in a “hotel” very much like this one. I said, “To me, you are in a sacred profession, because you never know when you’re going to bump up against a patient who says ‘Can you help me? Can you get me out of this pain?’ We got out of the elevator and she said, “Thank you so much, I really needed to hear that.” And we all do. We need to hear that what we’re doing is important. And that’s appreciated. It’s a fairly easy habit, once you start it. I think I navigate this outer world and life by paying attention and working in the inner world. That’s the spiritual realm for me. It’s all internal. And that’s how I attend to the external.Cathy: Cathy: What do we hope our children will take from this recession? I hope what they take is what they hold onto from how they were raised. In that, you work really hard to get a job. No job is beneath you. That they look at their life in terms of what they do have and the abundance they have as opposed to what they don’t have. I know – I don’t have to wish this – that both of our children take with them a clear understanding, appreciation, gratitude and experience of an extended period of family that will support and love them no matter what. I know they view that as a grace. That is one of the biggest things we have instilled in them and all of our extended family has, too. I always hold onto that and say I’ll never experience what many people will experience with losing their jobs. Even if that happened to me, I wouldn’t experience it in the same way because I am surrounded by people that know and love me and will support me. I have no reference to being alone or isolated or without someone to talk to, and I know our children know that, too. I struggle with those families that a member has lost a job and the impact it has on them. I can understand it monetarily. That doesn’t bother me as much to think they are alone or they don’t have support or love. That’s the key of what we have always held onto, taught our children, experienced ourselves. We know our children know this and we’ll teach it to their children.Mike: Our children were contributors in the house from a pretty early age. They had chores and when they were very young, there was an allowance so they would begin to learn how to handle money. We talked about our work at the dinner table. Cathy: We talked about money at the dinner table, purposely, so they had an understanding.Mike: Mike: When we were first married, we asked our relatives to help us to build a list of “before he or she steps out the door to go to college what must he or she should know.” And some of it was about handling money.Cathy: We asked it before we had our kids. Just for us as a couple and looking at raising a family. We asked them: “What is essential for them to know by the age of 18 when they leave home.” The things I remember is the importance of self-sufficiency. So they can cook. They can clean. They can do all those practical things. One of them was around balancing a checkbook and having an understanding of money coming in and money going out and how that works. And that they’d have the experience of employment at an appropriate age and have that experience carry on. There were suggestions about spiritual things, that they would know of a power or entity beyond themselves. We had some accountants who talked to us about the money pieces. The kids started doing their laundry when they were 6 years old. By junior high age, they were involved in our menu planning, our grocery shopping and they had to cook one meal a week. Mike and I, when we first got together, had this philosophy that there really isn’t anything he can do that I can’t do and vice versa. So I learned how to tune up a car. He worked in the kitchen. He could do diapers, laundry. We always had this philosophy of no gender bias. And we could all do it and it would be worthwhile to learn do it. We’ve both been in charge of our money. The kids know how to be in charge of their money.Mike: Mike: There was an expectation, certainly as they got closer to college, that the college that you want to go to does come down to financial consideration. That’s the bottom line. And you are expected to pay part of your way and so that meant summer jobs. They grew up in a house where there were no taboo subjects and that included money. I remember a couple of times their friends would walk in the door and the four of us would be sitting there talking and they’d be a little shocked at what we were talking about. I credit Cathy with most of that. She’s pretty courageous in terms of what we can talk about. There’s nothing not on that list.