For six former social workers, friendships forged at work spilled out of the office, creating lifelong bonds.
Thirty years ago, Cathy Adams, Megan Schmidt, Karen Kane, Marlys Schreck Fortner, Esperanza Parra and Teresa Hathaway were coworkers at the Department of Social and Health Services East Community Service Office.
Last week at their annual Christmas gathering, they discussed the genesis of their friendship.
Their heavy caseloads involved people struggling with addiction, domestic violence, and child abuse and neglect. The cubicle mates turned to each other for support and stress relief.
“When I had tough cases, they were a great resource to bounce stuff off,” Schmidt said.
In addition to their work life, the women also shared a love of laughter and silliness, key to coping with job pressures.
“We were healthy workers because we knew how to laugh,” Kane said.
“We lived a good cubicle life.”
Their friendship was encouraged by their boss.
“Our supervisor understood our caseload and our personalities,” explained Parra.
They’d often go out for drinks or dinner after work. When the women discovered Cathy Adams had a lake cabin near Bayview, Idaho, annual summer sleepovers commenced, and on one memorable weekend, the group was dubbed “The Ship of Fools,” and have referred to themselves this way ever since.
“Cathy had a tiny 16-foot boat and the six of us piled in and set off across the lake,” Schmidt recalled.
All went well until Adams tried to dock the boat at the resort. The novice boater made repeated attempts to dock.
“I’d make a pass, miss the dock and have to go back around,” she said.
They were greeted by a round of applause from the entertained crowd at the resort when they finally disembarked.
“You guys look like a ship of fools,” a fellow called out.
“The name stuck.”
Their summer sleepovers always had a theme. For example, when Hathaway graduated from Gonzaga University with a criminal justice degree, she donned a black robe and her five friends wore black-and-white striped prison garb.
“We went into Bayview like that.”
They worked in the same office for 14 years, but their friendships endured far beyond cubicle partitions. Summer sleepovers were augmented by birthday celebrations and yearly Christmas gatherings. No outsiders were invited, save their mascot, Bear. The plush toy was an office Secret Santa gift.
“He was naked when we got him, but now he has an entire wardrobe,” Parra said.
At their holiday party, Bear sported a red Santa suit and hat.
“He was therapy at the office,” Kane said.
Bear is also quite the globetrotter. One summer he disappeared from the office.
“We got postcards from him,” Parra said.
After his world tour, Bear showed up in a taxi at the office. He was covered in stickers marking all the places he’d been.
Parra shook her head.
“We had to pay his cab fare,” she said.
While the friends have enjoyed everything from wine-tasting to weekends in Seattle, their efforts at forming a book club failed.
“We were slackers. Nobody read the book, so we’d just drink wine and chat.”
However, the Ship of Fools is about more than just fun. They’ve supported each other through marriages, divorces, illness and childrearing. And their friendships have endured geographical change, as well.
“I live in San Diego,” Hathaway said. “I flew up just for this.”
During the pandemic shutdowns they kept in touch via Zoom, and last spring they met at Coeur d’Alene Park for a safe, socially distant gathering.
The women range in age from 65 to 78, so their summer sleepovers have also changed a bit.
“We used to go to bed at 2 a.m. Now we can make it till 9:30 or 10,” Schmidt said.
They marvel that 30 years have passed since they worked in adjoining cubicles.
“There’s been so much laughter,” Fortner said. “I just can’t believe how many years it’s been.”
Kane summed up their bond with a Dave Matthews lyric. “Lean upon me, I’ll lean upon you. We’ll be OK.”
Parra glanced around the table.
“They’re my amigas,” she said. “We share a lot with each other.”
Adams explained their lasting connection.
“We make time for each other,” she explained. “When I’m with them the stress melts away.”
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