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‘We’ve always been involved’: East Valley couple covers pandemic-era student lunch debts, buys diversity books

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 7, 2021

Sarah and Rory McDonald stand for a photo on Tuesday in their Easy Valley home. In summer 2020, while many East Valley families were struggling financially, the couple paid the entire outstanding student lunch debt in the district. In October, they donated sacks of books about diversity and inclusivity to each school library. Washington Association of School Administrators just gave the couple a regional award for community leadership.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Sarah and Rory McDonald stand for a photo on Tuesday in their Easy Valley home. In summer 2020, while many East Valley families were struggling financially, the couple paid the entire outstanding student lunch debt in the district. In October, they donated sacks of books about diversity and inclusivity to each school library. Washington Association of School Administrators just gave the couple a regional award for community leadership. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Ties to East Valley schools run deep in the Rory McDonald family – back to when he joined the first kindergarten class at East Farms Elementary after it was built in 1979.

Down the road from that school today is Timberline Truss, a business he and his wife, Sarah, own and operate. Their three children went through the East Valley School District and graduated. He served as assistant wrestling coach for 27 years at the high school and Sarah volunteered.

After seeing 2020 pandemic impacts in their community and other U.S. events, the couple were compelled to do more. Construction boomed, but they knew many industries suffered. Quietly in June 2020, as many East Valley families struggled financially, the couple paid the entire student lunch debt in the district at $17,600. In October, they donated sacks of books about diversity and inclusivity that Sarah McDonald bought for each school library.

“The construction industry is one of the first that got back to normal, or whatever normal looks like right now with COVID, so our guys were able to get back to work,” Sarah McDonald said. “We have an amazing group of employees who help make our lives easier. They’ve allowed us to be able to help within the community.” As the 2020 news hit hard, she sent an email to the district to ask, “How can we help?”

“Our industry was in a completely different impact than many, many of our friends,” she said. “I think we subscribe to the feeling that if you can, you should, so it started that way – just with an email.” Their query went to Kelly Shea, newly retired EVSD superintendent. Shea brought up the lunch debt, but he thought they might fund a portion. Their full payment came as a surprise, he said, and the couple didn’t want any public acknowledgment at the time.

“East Valley’s demographics are such that we have a number of families who live at or below the poverty line, and they struggle to make ends meet as it is,” Shea said. “Then we threw COVID on top of that, and it just impacted more families. The McDonalds – behind the scenes – asked how they could help. I don’t know that the families knew their debt got erased. They certainly didn’t know the McDonalds did it because they quietly wanted to do that.”

Sarah McDonald, a Rogers High School graduate, said the book donation simply grew out of a trip to the store. “Let’s be honest: Last year, our world with George Floyd’s death and with everything happening, you just have to look at the world in a different way,” she said. “I grew up in a part of town considered diverse for Spokane, but Spokane isn’t diverse, really, when you look at the numbers.”

The McDonalds have volunteered with students from all backgrounds, she added. “You want kids to be seen, and what better place for that to start than when they go to their library? Whether it’s disability or race or whatever, they should feel represented in some way. It’s a little thing; it’s not a fix-the-world-problems thing, but I think it’s important to feel represented in some way.”

Earlier this year, Shea sought permission to mention the couple by name to nominate them for a regional award. In August, EVSD mailed its newsletter with a short write-up about the McDonalds for receiving the 2021 Community Leadership regional award from the Washington Association of School Administrators. Sarah McDonald recalls being asked to send in a photo for the nomination. The article was a bit of a surprise. “It was a nice surprise,” she said.

Many friends called or sent congratulations by text. Rory McDonald, an East Valley middle school and high school wrestler, first coached the 1992-93 wrestling season and stayed until recently. Years of activities involved their children: Randy, 23, Cole, 20, and Emma, 18.

“We definitely built community by being involved in that and with youth football and baseball, all the active things that you do in the community as parents,” Sarah McDonald said. “Our two boys and daughter were very active in sports. They grew up at wrestling matches and tournaments, so they just built a lot of community by those activities.”

The McDonalds live in East Valley and have stayed involved. They recently went to an outdoor “yard games” tradition started by wrestling families years ago. Rory McDonald said he hears often from former wrestlers. “It’s good to keep a connection with those kids even after they graduate,” he said. “I’ve had kids tell us what as coaches that meant to them, and sometimes that surprises you. They say the wrestling program is more than wrestling; it’s a family.”

The couple gave their time at schools when they couldn’t donate during the industry’s lean years. “Money’s great, and we feel fortunate we could help, but there is no substitute for time,” Sarah McDonald said. “We feel really passionate about being involved with kids and with kids in your community.

“Studies show that when you invest in kids, then they tend to do better. You have a better community, less crime. The benefits are just so much – you can’t even equate how much it matters – so we’ve always been involved,” she said.

“It’s such a fun thing to have that place in the community of being someone who got to show up for kids … You’ll never regret that investment. We’ve gotten as much from the community as we’ve given. Our kids have benefited, we’ve benefited, so we feel lucky.”

Timberline Truss began about 20 years ago as a family business and today provides wood roof trusses in the Pacific Northwest for all types of construction. The couple took the reins about seven years ago. They were involved with building the headquarters about 16 years ago. “When we looked at land, we really wanted to be in the district and support the district our kids went to, we lived in and Rory coached in,” McDonald said.

After talking about the lunch program debt, the couple decided that it was an amount they could cover, she said. Plus, they knew the dollars had a direct impact. “We just have a lot of families in this area who work very hard. We’re a very blue collar community. A lot of people in our district were out of work for a long time. Construction is booming, so it just seemed like the thing to do.”

For the annual WASA awards, Shea said he naturally thought of the McDonalds. Sarah McDonald had served on a task force to add safety and security features at schools that later grew into a levy group. Rory McDonald steadily coached. They’re generous through their business. “Each year, we pick someone from the community who has gone above and beyond,” Shea said.

“Last year when we picked them for the district award, I’d say they reluctantly have gone along with the recognition. If it was up to me, I’d shower them with even more accolades. It just warms your heart to know that these are people doing this only for the reason of doing something good for the community and for the district.”

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