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Lady power: How volunteer housewives helped build Spokane’s community foundation

UPDATED: Fri., June 8, 2018

Mary Heath doesn’t talk much about her accomplishments. When she discusses the inception of the Spokane Community Foundation in 1974, she’s quick to point out the roles of her Junior League cohorts Elinor Magnuson and Molly Van Marter, along with her friend Marv Soehren.

Heath is a quiet leader, said Jeanne Agers, former executive director. But she’s done a lot for the area since helping to start the foundation in 1974. And she perhaps represents the many other women who helped the foundation to succeed.

Heath began her community service work as a young woman in the Junior League of Spokane. She, Magnuson and Van Marter would later come together to start the community foundation.

“We were looking for funding for our projects, and other community projects,” she said. “It was fun to watch it grow. It’s always been a pet project.”

That “pet project” now grants millions in charitable donations. The money has funded grants to programs for education, child care and supporting self-sufficiency for women and single mothers, Agers said.

“She knows Spokane really well,” Agers said of Heath. “She has taken the time to study what the needs are. Thank goodness we have women like that in this town.”

The foundation allows people to make a bigger difference with their donations by pooling money for a specific cause, said Soehren, a former chairman for the foundation.

Heath was always willing to step up and help, he said. The two worked together on multiple committees, and are still called in for help on occasion.

“She’s there if they need her,” he said. “She is very involved in the community.”

After graduating with a degree in elementary education from the University of Idaho, Heath had planned to move away and teach. But all that changed when she married her husband, the late John E. Heath.

“I met my knight in shining armor, so I didn’t leave town,” she said. The couple stayed in Spokane and had three children: Jack, Sarah and Bill.

“I wasn’t working anymore,” said Heath. “So I wanted to volunteer.”

The foundation’s early success can be attributed to countless hours of volunteer work by women, many of whom were unpaid, Agers said.

There were definitely men who were also instrumental in the group’s success, Heath said. The foundation couldn’t have gotten where it is without the help of community members like Soehren.

But working behind the scenes were organizers like Heath, and other volunteers — many of whom served on the Junior League prior to working with the community foundation. The league’s training helped volunteers to organize with other foundations and individuals.

“They were stay-at-home moms, and they had the time to volunteer,” Agers said. “We had a well-educated volunteer force.”

To hear Agers tell it, women, and especially mothers, were responsible for much of the foundation’s success.

“We had no dollars,” she said. “Any of the communication and marketing skills were all done by women.”

The league would later be recognized in 1979 as second in the nation for involvement of women, according to an article for The Spokesman-Review, because half of the 10-member distribution committee was women. Heath served as president the second year, and was one of three women who had served as presidents when the foundation was recognized.

Many more leadership opportunities have opened up for women since Heath’s presidency, said Agers, the foundation’s first paid executive director.

“(At the time) I think I could count on one hand the number of women who were executive directors,” Agers said. “Mary was a very strong, inspirational leader, and she still is.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed on Friday June 8, 2018 to correct the names of Mary Heath’s children.

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