Sather Gowdy received a warm welcome one recent Monday morning when he showed up in Deb Ulias’ classroom at Woodridge Elementary School.
The donation drive was a success, Ulias told him. Her fifth-graders had packed a large cardboard box with gently used belongings they no longer needed.
“I had so many kids clean out their dressers and toy boxes,” Ulias said.
Gowdy, a 31-year-old Gonzaga law student and founder of a nonprofit called Heal Spokane, was elated. He carried the box to his car and returned to his friends’ house in the West Central neighborhood, where they set to work sorting donations from several local schools.
Kat Bopp and Aaron Farrell folded clothes at the kitchen table. In the living room, Bopp’s husband, Matt, dug through bags of stuffed animals and boxes of gently used plastic toys, along with Gowdy and his girlfriend, Maja Rodell.
They listened to music and made small talk while figuring out which items should go to which charities. Some would be delivered to the Union Gospel Mission and the YWCA. Others were bound for organizations called Our Place and CAPA.
The donation drive was a simple operation, and Gowdy said that’s precisely the point: Volunteering doesn’t need to be complicated. Acts of kindness don’t need to be grand gestures.
“It’s as simple as opening the door for somebody,” he said.
Gowdy has worked to spread this message for about a year, but at first he didn’t expect his project to catch on.
It started after a series of unfortunate events in October 2017. He went through a messy breakup and got in a car wreck. Two of his friends died. He was miserable.
But one day, an elderly neighbor asked Gowdy to help her carry some groceries. He obliged, and they chatted for a bit. He felt good about that small favor, like he’d transformed some negative energy into positive change. Helping others, he realized, could be therapeutic.
So he decided, then and there, to volunteer as often as he could. He started shoveling snow around the block. He watched some YouTube videos and figured out how to repair a neighbor’s fence. He pulled old mattresses and garbage from the alley behind his house.
“I had to have my life stripped down to a pretty bare minimum to kind of figure out what was important and who I was,” he said.
After a few weeks of volunteering almost daily, Gowdy started a Facebook group and a hashtag, #HealSpokane, and challenged others to join him. He also pieced together a logo featuring an Afro like his, a heart-shaped planet Earth and some Spokane landmarks, and had it printed on a T-shirt. The principal at Mead High School, his alma mater, invited him to speak during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day assembly.
After appearing in a KHQ segment and a newspaper profile early this year, people started contacting Gowdy to offer donations. He hadn’t asked for money but figured he could put it to good use. So he went to Gonzaga’s legal clinic and got help with the paperwork to register his nonprofit. He’s the president of the organization. His friends sit on the board.
Heal Spokane remains a small, grassroots effort. Gowdy and the others use donated money to buy canned goods, which they bring to local food banks like Second Harvest. Mainly, they try to persuade others to get involved.
In the past year, Gowdy said he’s had 38 speaking engagements at almost as many schools, from elementary schools to universities. Gowdy said it’s especially rewarding to get children excited about helping the community.
“Kids are coming up in a generation where they have access to more information than we ever had, and they have access to getting their voice out there in a way that we never had,” he said. “And showing them they can use those things for good, and that they have a bit of agency, I think is very important.”
In November, Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living magazine named Gowdy to its “20 under 40” list. He said he’s not interested in accolades, but he’ll accept them if they help promote the cause.
He’s on winter break now, with one more semester of law school ahead of him. Afterward, he plans to become a public defender. He still tries to do an act of service every day, even when he’s swamped with homework.
“I’ve never regretted it after I’ve done it,” he said. “It’s like exercising.”
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