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Rob Curley: Kindred spirits of community kindness and a transformational kitchen

Kim Kelly, executive director/CEO of Christ Kitchen in Spokane, received a .$50,000 donation from Bank of America. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Kim Kelly, executive director/CEO of Christ Kitchen in Spokane, received a .$50,000 donation from Bank of America. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

This is a story about kindred spirits of community kindness, the power of coffee, a transformational kitchen and two bankers named Kurt and Katherine.

Everyone in it shares the same chromosomal makeup. Except for Kurt.

But first we should start with the backstory.

The virtuous circle and the vicious cycle are simple phrases, kind of like cousins with similar last names who couldn’t be more different. The key really is in their first names: virtuous and vicious.

Both explain how life often feels ruled by feedback loops – which sounds like something out of a biology class or a computer textbook. But the best examples couldn’t be further from science.

A virtuous circle is the perfect explanation for why moments of goodness often create more and more goodness, and why badness tends to lead to a vicious cycle of even more badness.

That’s a world Christ Kitchen executive director Kim Kelly knows all too well. Christ Kitchen works with women in poverty, helping them create life skills to support themselves and experience firsthand that there are not only other ways to survive, but also ways to thrive.

That’s essential when you’re helping women who might be homeless, some with untreated mental health problems, others involved in prostitution or human trafficking, some with substance-abuse problems and even a few who have been in prison.

Christ Kitchen teaches practical job skills in the warmth of a nurturing ministry. One of the job programs it’s been working for a couple of years to try to fund aims to teach these women how to become baristas in one of the coffee capitals of the Pacific Northwest.

Similar to how the vicious circle can spin out of control, the virtuous circle works in powerfully positive ways.

You see, being nice is contagious. Kind of like when you’re in the drive-thru at your favorite coffee shop and someone pays for the tasty beverage for the car behind them, and the next thing you know, everyone in line pays it forward for the next 45 minutes. (Or should we call that paying it backward?)

Though incredibly rare, sometimes there are monumental moments, likely only recognized if you’re looking for them, when the virtuous circle and the vicious cycle meet face-to-face. One of those unicorn moments happened in Spokane last week.

The good guys won.

No, that’s not right. The wonderful women won.

And nearly 500 people were inspired in that instant.

On Thursday night, hundreds and hundreds piled into the Bing Crosby Theater as The Spokesman-Review and Bank of America honored our inaugural class of the Inland Northwest Women of the Year. Eastern Washington University president Mary Cullinan had a delightful conversation with longtime NPR host Tess Vigeland and former Google and Twitter executive wordsmith Karen Wickre that was filled with as much wisdom as it was filled with laughs.

Mary Cullinan, president of Eastern Washington University on far left, talks with Karen Wickre, center, author of “Making Life Work on Your Terms.” and Tess Vigeland, a former reporter and host for the public radio business magazine “Marketplace,” during the Northwest Passages Inland Northwest Women of the Year event held, Thurs., Nov. 14, 2019, at the Bing Crosby Theater. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Mary Cullinan, president of Eastern Washington University on far left, talks with Karen Wickre, center, author of “Making Life Work on Your Terms.” and Tess Vigeland, a former reporter and host for the public radio business magazine “Marketplace,” during the Northwest Passages Inland Northwest Women of the Year event held, Thurs., Nov. 14, 2019, at the Bing Crosby Theater. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

All three women found great success, not so much by breaking through the glass ceiling as by ignoring it and finding their own, nontraditional ways to the top. And at the height of Wickre and Vigeland’s careers, they walked away because there was something else both believed in even more than their dream jobs: themselves.

They also answered questions from the audience, including one that mentioned to never forget you always deserve to give yourself a good cup of coffee.

Just when you thought the night couldn’t get any more inspirational, the 15 members of the 2019 Women of the Year class were announced, with movie-screen-sized videos that explained what made each of them so special to our community. They all received the kind of loud applause and cheers you’d more likely expect for the Gonzaga starting five at The Kennel.

The Spokesman-Review Northwest Women of the Year honorees pose for a picture on the stage at the Bing Crosby Therater, Thurs., Nov. 14, 2019. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokesman-Review Northwest Women of the Year honorees pose for a picture on the stage at the Bing Crosby Therater, Thurs., Nov. 14, 2019. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

There were high fives, happy dances, tight hugs, huge smiles and even few tears as they each walked to the stage to sit next to each other.

Then they all got a standing ovation from the packed house.

Most of these 15 women had never met before a small reception was held in their honor a month or so ago. They shared more than a title, they shared email addresses and phone numbers, and became their own support group for women who know success through adversity, and who just don’t want their community to be better tomorrow, they want to do all they can to make sure that happens.

They’re now unlikely friends united by their own sense of municipal mission.

Then the virtuous circle decided to take another spin around the Bing, this time from a couple of big-hearted bankers.

Bank of America’s Spokane market president Kurt Walsdorf and senior Vice President Katherine Morgan came on the stage and congratulated everyone. They explained the ideas behind the bank’s new Neighborhood Champions grant and the role nonprofits really play in advancing economic mobility.

Christ Kitchen was then given a $50,000 grant, as well as leadership training paid for by Bank of America.

Executive Director of Christ Kitchen, Kim Kelly, center, is presented with a $50,000 check from Bank of America executives Kurt Walsdorf and Katherine Morgan at the Bing Crosby Theater, during the Northwest Passages Inland Northwest Women of the Year event held, Thurs., Nov. 14, 2019, at the Bing Crosby Theater. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Executive Director of Christ Kitchen, Kim Kelly, center, is presented with a $50,000 check from Bank of America executives Kurt Walsdorf and Katherine Morgan at the Bing Crosby Theater, during the Northwest Passages Inland Northwest Women of the Year event held, Thurs., Nov. 14, 2019, at the Bing Crosby Theater. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

And just like that, a new barista training program was born.

Kelly explained just what this meant, not only for Christ Kitchen, but more important, for the women it serves. Only she was crying. So was everyone else on stage. And everyone in the theater.

“As you can imagine, it’s really hard to get a job with a felony, but we have actually had people willing to give our women this essential second chance,” she said. “There are all of these small mom-and-pop coffee shops around our community that absolutely want to be a part of our program to either intern our women or hire them.

“It’s going to the blow the doors off of the success rate we have currently.”

It shows the power of heart. It’s also the perfect example of the virtuous circle.

“The impact that Christ Kitchen has on these women’s lives is transformational,” Walsdorf explained. “For us, it was easy to see that, and to see that this is an organization that is removing barriers for a very vulnerable population and empowering women in powerful ways.

“This is how we want to make a difference in our community.”

Before Kelly left the stage, she turned to all of those on stage who were just honored as this year’s women of the year. She told them they were the inspiration and embodiment of what the women who end up at Christ Kitchen aspire to become.

“Because you share your stories so openly, it gives them hope to know that they can do this too – that they can make an impact on our community,” Kelly said.

Then there was another standing ovation.

A standing ovation for the 15 honorees at the Northwest Passages Northwest Women of the Year event,  held Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019, at the Bing Crosby Theater. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
A standing ovation for the 15 honorees at the Northwest Passages Northwest Women of the Year event, held Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019, at the Bing Crosby Theater. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

With that, the evening was over. The house lights came up. This is the time when most people traditionally leave an event and head home. Only most didn’t.

They stayed. They talked. They took pictures. They hugged.

Mostly, they just didn’t want that feeling to end.

That’s the power of the virtuous circle. It tastes good and makes you feel even better.

Like a great cup of coffee.