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Washington Voices

At home and abroad Hansen quick to lend a hand

Thu., Sept. 8, 2011

According to an official mayoral proclamation, June 30 was decreed Florence Hansen Day in Spokane. Who is Florence Hansen?

“She’s somebody who has a great passion and commitment for helping others,” said Jeff Thomas, associate director of Frontier Behavioral Health. Hansen is a longtime board member of the organization.

She’s also a pioneer. She spearheaded a program in 1962 to find foster homes for unaccompanied children who fled Cuba in the wake of Fidel Castro’s rise to power.

In 1968, she started the first social services department in a Spokane hospital, at what is now Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center. While there, she worked as part of a team that pioneered the use of home dialysis for kidney patients.

In 1991, she was honored as both state and national Social Worker of the Year. Hansen chose to spend the bulk of her retirement years working in Zambia, training community health workers.

At 77 and all of 4 feet 10 inches tall, she’s feisty, funny and she is dying of terminal cancer.

From her home in northwest Spokane, with her daughter by her side, Hansen reflected on a life spent in the service of others.

“I never looked for jobs,” she said. “I just fell into them.”

Hansen began her career in her home state of New York, but she despised the winters there. In 1957, while visiting an aunt in Miami, she accepted a position with Catholic Family Services and enrolled in the Master of Social Work program at Florida State University.

While there, she met her future husband, James. After graduation, she left balmy Florida behind, and they moved to Spokane, where James had a job waiting.

Hansen accepted a temporary position with Spokane Catholic Charities, and in 1961 gave birth to her daughter, Florence.

“I was happily at home with her when I got a call from Father Schiller,” Hansen recalled. The Spokane Diocese had agreed to participate in the Unaccompanied Cuban Children’s Program and needed someone to oversee it.

“I told him (Schiller), ‘I can’t. I have a newborn.’ ” But that didn’t stop the determined priest.

Eventually, Hansen accepted the position. “But I made my own terms. I had a Dictaphone at home, and I did my home visits in the evening when my husband was home from work.”

Between 1960 and 1962, 14,000 children between the ages of 6 and 18 came to the United States from Cuba, sent by parents who wanted their children to escape Castro’s communist indoctrination. Half of the children joined relatives or friends, but the rest arrived totally dependent on strangers.

In the end, Hansen said, 6,846 children were cared for by the Catholic Welfare Bureau and Catholic Charities agencies across the nation. Approximately 200 of them ended up in the Spokane area.

Sixty-five of those lived in a renovated former Catholic boarding school in Colfax, and Hansen found homes for the rest. Eventually, most of the children were reunited with their parents as they emigrated to the United States. Hansen also assisted the parents in getting jobs and persuaded Spokane Community Colleges to offer English classes for them. She’s still in touch with her “Cuban kids.” In fact, one of them dropped by as Hansen visited with The Spokesman-Review.

In 1967, Hansen and her husband took a break from their busy workloads and took their daughter out of school to embark on an international adventure, visiting 42 countries in nine months. “It was a wonderful trip,” she said. “We just seized life as it happened.”

When they returned from their travels, Florence began work at Sacred Heart, where she started the first social services department in a hospital in Spokane. “They hired me as a part-time social worker for one year,” she said. “And that’s where I worked for 24 years.”

Hansen worked in the kidney center when home dialysis was just being introduced. She not only worked with doctors and patients, but she helped raise money to support services, and advocated successfully with lawmakers for legislation that would expand Medicare’s coverage for dialysis treatment.

“There was no funding for end-stage renal care at the time,” Hansen said. “I single-handedly had legislation passed in Idaho and Montana to fund care for kidney patients.” She paused to catch her breath. “I’ll take credit for it. I worked hard.”

While still at Sacred Heart, Hansen enrolled in a doctorate program at the Union Institute in Cincinnati. “Other students were there to get higher-paying jobs. I think I was the only one there to quit my good-paying job to work for free.”

Widowed in 1989, she retired in 1991. For Hansen, retirement meant living half of the year in a Third World country. Inspired by a priest she’d met who was building a hospital in Zambia, she devoted the next 20 years to training community health workers and birth attendants. She said, “I was totally independent and took no salary – I bought my own tickets. It was really challenging.”

When she wasn’t in Zambia, she was taking jaunts on cargo ships – no luxury cruise lines for her. The adventure and independence of traveling via cargo ships had much more appeal.

Despite her many ocean voyages, Hansen never learned to swim. “So far, so good,” she said with a grin.

In July, Hansen, her daughter and her grandson returned from her final trip to Zambia. Weakened by cancer, she supervised from a sofa the sorting, packing and wrapping up of two decades worth of work. “I was able to say goodbye.”

Thomas said, “Florence is inspirational. She’s someone who makes you really want to make a difference.”

Asked to choose a word that best describes her mother, Hansen’s daughter looked at her mom and said: “Determined.”

And Hansen smiled and drew a shaky breath. “I’m at peace.”

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