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Difference Makers: Ryan Oelrich aims to help Spokane’s youth through fun, games and data

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Ryan Oelrich never considered leaving Spokane after swirling harassment allegations against former Mayor Jim West thrust him into public life 14 years ago.

“That was a stressful time in my life,” Oelrich said. “I had folks calling me names. I was spit on. I saw some hatred that I’d never experienced before.

“But, for whatever reason, I’m a stubborn person. I thought it would be so easy to leave. But then those people would be right.”

The beneficiaries of Oelrich’s decision to stay have been Spokane’s youth, particularly those experiencing homelessness. His stint as executive director of Priority Spokane, an alliance of local nonprofits and service providers targeting a single, systemic issue in the region, is just the latest in a series of public positions Oelrich has held while seeking to improve the quality of life for young people in Spokane.

“I try to be a very strategic and logical person,” Oelrich said. “That’s when my mind tells me we need to intervene.”

Over the past three years, Priority Spokane has been coordinating with community health workers in five area schools in an effort to prevent families from living on the streets. The $700,000 project, funded by area nonprofits and service providers, found stable housing for more than 100 families, and 272 children, in that time span, while also collecting data on the factors that put such families at risk of becoming homeless in Spokane.

Priority Spokane is now turning its attention to trauma in the home, building upon its success in providing stable housing by aiming to reduce stress on children and parents caused by in-home violence that often leads to generational cycles, Oelrich said. He’s seen that in interviews with people in the community that are forming the approaches the group will take to tackling trauma as its next major issue beginning next year.

“Talking with somebody who was convicted, did his time, he raped and assaulted his wife,” Oelrich said. “He was in jail. He talked about, when it comes to violence, how he was angry, that he had unresolved trauma from his childhood. He didn’t have the language to talk about it. He refused to get help.”

A flow chart hangs in Oelrich’s eclectic home above Peaceful Valley, which has seen odds-and-ends additions since he moved in in 2007. One of those additions is an at-home office styled after the Hobbit homes in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” books, built last year.

The flow chart distills the conflicts of families at risk of in-home violence into a set of patterns that will focus the efforts of Priority Spokane in addressing the problem, Oelrich said. It’s that type of analytical thinking that helps the organization target specific problems and demonstrate progress, said Jim Mohr, chairman of Priority Spokane’s board of directors.

“He keeps our organization on track,” Mohr said of Oelrich, who was named executive director of the organization in 2015. “He’s excellent at helping us stay focused on what our priority is, and what the work is. A lot of these priorities, they could go in so many different directions.”

Despite a focus on helping youth, Oelrich’s life has gone in many different directions. Growing up, Oelrich bounced around as the child of an Air Force veteran. He was performing magic when his family encouraged him to earn a college degree, and he wound up at Whitworth University.

“My parents, in their great wisdom, said that’s not going to pay the bills forever, and they said ‘You need to go to college,’ ” Oelrich said. “And I said, ‘OK, I’ll go to college. But I need you to pick one.’ ”

“I think I’d passed through Spokane on the way to different places, but I’d never visited,” Oelrich added. “My dad dropped me off at Whitworth, and he said ‘Good luck.’ ” He later graduated from Gonzaga University.

In the mid-2000s, Oelrich founded a support group for young members of the LGBTQ community called Quest Youth Group. He also came forward at the time as being sexually harassed by West after receiving appointment to the city’s Human Rights Commission, which later became the subject of a documentary.

Oelrich said now he hopes West “may rest in peace” and that his decision to speak publicly about the harassment came from a motivation that’s been true in all his work in the community. That’s also included balloon art, shown at the annual First Night celebrations in Spokane, and Spokane Sidewalk Games, a venture that’s brought supersized versions of checkers, Connect Four and more to the city’s streets in an effort to raise money to support children experiencing homelessness.

“One thing that I’ve worked very hard to do well, is to make good decisions,” Oelrich said. “I’ve also worked very hard to remove myself from the equation, to look at a situation and ask myself, what is really going to be in the best interest of the largest number of people?”

Oelrich’s husband, Robert Thompson, called him a “puzzle-solver” and “a builder” who recognizes, in his community, the good inherent in the young and the importance of maintaining that.

“I think he sees magic in the world,” Thompson said. “And he sees people who should be able to see the magic in the world, and to give them that spark and to nurture it.”

That’s evident in Oelrich’s eclectic home, Hobbit House included, Thompson said. The furnishings include an oversized scales of justice, a piece Oelrich pointed out when talking about his own purpose in Spokane, and in the world writ large.

“My goal is just to leave this world – at least I don’t have any great ambitions that I’m going to improve it – but, at least, a little better than how I found it,” he said. “I will be totally content with just that. Doing what I can.”

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