These stalwart Assistants make the good even better

Nancy Green, left, Marie McMahon, center, and Joyce Rulon stuff bags with supplies for newborns at Manito United Methodist Church on Thursday. They are part of a group called the Assistants who have done charity work in the Spokane area for 50 years. (Christopher Anderson)
Nancy Green, left, Marie McMahon, center, and Joyce Rulon stuff bags with supplies for newborns at Manito United Methodist Church on Thursday. They are part of a group called the Assistants who have done charity work in the Spokane area for 50 years. (Christopher Anderson)

A global chemical company is known for this slogan: “We don’t make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better.”

The Assistants, a group of Spokane women, could adapt the slogan this way: “We don’t create the good causes. We make the good causes even better.”

On Wednesday, they will celebrate their 50th anniversary with an invitation-only reunion lunch for Assistants past and present.

This philanthropic organization has lasted five decades without much publicity and without burning out. Here’s how group members did it:

They were clear about their mission from Day1:

In 1961, a group of women who had been supporting Spokane’s symphony, then called the Spokane Philharmonic, decided to branch out.

“Most everyone who was in it was a housewife,” said Joyce Rulon, 81, the Assistants’ most senior active member.

“They needed to do more than just be housewives. So they went to different organizations and offered to help.”

Their philosophy then (as now): “You don’t take on a job and do everything, but you help out in any way,” Rulon said.

A 1962 Spokesman-Review article summarized the group’s first-year activities. Members of the Assistants helped sell tickets to an arts festival benefit. They addressed 4,000 invitations for Gonzaga University’s Champagne Ball.

They distributed pamphlets at library branches a week before a library bond issue. And they addressed and stamped 1,500 membership-drive letters for the president of the Eastern Washington State Historical Society.

They limit membership:

In its first decade, the number of Assistants grew to 30 women. Another 10 members were added in the third decade. The number of Assistants settled in at 40, where it will remain.

“Our meetings are in our homes,” Rulon said. “If you get more than 40 people, it’s difficult to find a home where everyone fits.”

The limited number allows the women to really get to know one another, especially when they gather in twos and threes to do the service work.

“We’re a much closer group,” said Marie McMahon, an Assistant since 1992. “Nobody wants to quit.”

They give time, rather than just money:

“We point this out every year when we first meet,” McMahon said. “The main reason for the organization is not to raise money and give it out, but to give our service.”

This early philosophy anticipated a busy society where writing a check was sometimes easier than physically showing up to help out.

Through the decades, the group has raised money through a variety of events, from garage sales to golf tournaments. It has given away about $182,000 in the past 50 years. But the emphasis is always service, not cash.

They volunteer outside their comfort zones:

The women, educated and mostly upper-middle class, choose projects that help those struggling with poverty and other intractable problems.

They serve street teens lunch at Crosswalk every month.

They stuff child-friendly gifts in backpacks for foster children moved from home to home.

They fill grocery bags with items for Tom’s Turkey Drive each Thanksgiving.

They listen as children read to them in Spokane’s “Reach for the Future,” a college-bound initiative for low-income children.

They have helped out with nearly 150 causes in 50 years, ranging wide and far from the group’s vestigial cause, the Spokane Philharmonic.

But the group still supports the arts, too. It has given time and money to the Spokane Symphony, for instance, and Holy Names Music Center.

They plan for the future:

Group members range in age from late 40s to mid-80s. Sustaining members are even older.

They are always on the lookout for the next generation of Assistants, for women interested in hands-on service, egos checked at the door.

They have never lacked for new members. Currently, there’s a waiting list.

Several studies associate volunteering with greater happiness and increased longevity. This is no surprise for Nancy Green, a member of Assistants since 2007, whose 90-year-old mother still volunteers in her church and in military organizations.

Green said of the Assistants: “It’s a connection, and you learn new things. I can see it going on forever.”

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