A lot of people helped Christina Gay move forward in life.
Now it’s her turn. Earlier this month, she was helping a patient take his first steps down a hospital hallway following surgery.
It’s a situation Gay has seen from both sides, first as a cancer patient and now as a nurse.
“To understand what it’s like to be in that bed and not know what’s going on: It helps me when I explain something,” Gay said. “I have a little more empathy.”
Gay was part of a program that began in 1995 to help children attending four Vancouver elementary schools. Gay and about 75 classmates at Hough Elementary were tapped in 1997.
“I was a fourth-grader at Hough,” said Gay, who was Christina Jensen back then. “I do remember the ceremony when they got us all together in the gym. They had this big announcement: All of us would be getting college paid for.
“I didn’t really know what it meant. My classmates didn’t either. All our parents were crying,” Gay said.
The program — I Have a Dream of Southwest Washington — was designed to help more than 300 kids in four low-income neighborhoods graduate from high school and then move on to higher education or career training.
For Gay, that meant studying nursing at Clark College and then earning her bachelor’s degree at Washington State University Vancouver. She now is a nurse at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center.
“I take care of people after they’ve had surgery,” the 31-year-old Battle Ground resident said.
When the four projects were rolled out every two years between 1995 and 2001, scholarship money seemed to be the most significant part of the pitch. As Gay recalled, that promise is what brought tears to the eyes of the parents of those fourth-graders: “They knew it was a super big deal.”
As it turned out, personal relationships were even more important. Program staff members, sponsors and volunteers provided day-to-day mentoring, encouragement, enrichment opportunities and a lot of crisis management.
They also helped the children set goals.
“If it weren’t for I Have a Dream, I don’t know that I would have realized how important education is,” Gay said. “They started us thinking about ‘following our dreams’ from a very young age and I think that makes a huge difference in your mind-set growing up.”
Many of the students in the program had more than their fair share of personal challenges. The first project at Washington Elementary had about 65 kids, and 25 of them were homeless at some point before graduating from high school.
Gay had a health challenge. She lost her lower right leg to cancer.
She started having problems with her leg the summer before her senior year of high school.
“It was swollen and painful,” she said. After X-rays were taken, “They told me I had a fracture, but there was nothing that I did to cause one.”
The next step, an MRI, provided the answer: She had a tumor.
“They did chemo for five months to try to shrink it. The first surgery was a bone transplant. The donor bone was from a girl about my age who had died. It never healed.
“There was a cascade of surgeries after that — seven or eight surgeries in three years; screws, rods, it never healed,” she said.
During all those hospital stays, the local I Have a Dream sponsors kept her spirits up.
“Susan Gilbert was a huge source of support. Carolyn Propstra wrote me many cards while I was in Seattle, encouraging me. Nancy Lematta was involved in emotional support, and Candace Young.
“Of course, Paul Schroeder, the project coordinator: He was kind of like a second dad.”
While they provided valuable emotional support, Gay’s physical problems continued.
“I was constantly on crutches, in pain.”
There was another option.
“They gave me the choice of doing the amputation. They wanted to let me decide. It was the most viable option, the best chance to get back on my feet.
“I felt comfortable” with the decision,” she said. “At that point, I was having all the surgeries and nothing was working.
“Once they had mentioned amputation, I found a support group, and I could learn from an amputee what it was like.”
They included the late Dale Bowlin, an Army veteran who lost a leg in Germany during World War II.
“Dale was one of the first people I met,” Gay said. “He thought it was amazing that I sought out a support group before it happened.”
Gay was in the nursing program at Clark College at that point, and was not about to change her plans.
“When I had set my thoughts on becoming a nurse, I was destined and determined to do it,” she said. “Even if cancer had gotten in my way, I was going to work through and around it and still come out at the top with a college degree that would eventually lead me to a job I absolutely love.
“I feel like this is what I Have A Dream has instilled in me: You can do anything you dream!”
So, as Gay looked ahead to the surgery, her game plan reflected that dream.
“School was most important,” she said. “I planned it for spring break so I could be back for spring quarter.”
She graduated from Clark College in 2012 and then moved on to WSU Vancouver. Gay is approaching her four-year work anniversary at Legacy Salmon Creek.
In addition to day-to-day nursing care, Gay has found another way to help a particular category of patients, those who share her own medical history.
“We have people who have parts of their bodies amputated, or a patient who is in for something else has a prosthetic leg. If they seem open, I share that with them,” she said.
“One patient I can remember just had a below-the-knee amputation from diabetes. His daughter was there. He was very quiet and stoic. I was taking care of him that night.”
Gay said she lifted her pant leg and showed them her own prosthetic leg.
“They started crying. His daughter gave me a hug. I felt I helped someone in a way other than nursing.”
‘It’s my duty to give back’
Member of first ‘I Have a Dream’ class uses his experiences to help juvenile offenders
Eder Pagola was able to pursue his American dream because of Mary Granger.
But it wasn’t enough to dream. Pagola also had to become a citizen.
Pagola was a student 23 years ago at Washington Elementary School. That was where the local I Have a Dream program organized by Granger debuted. It was the first of four projects designed to help more than 300 children in low-income Vancouver neighborhoods.
“I started at Washington Elementary in the fourth grade in October. I did not speak English,” said Pagola.
A native of Mexico, Pagola had been in the country for about seven months when he heard Granger make her announcement on May 26, 1995.
“The I Have a Dream Foundation made it possible for me to attend college. They opened the door. Through their encouragement and support, I was able to make my dreams possible. I don’t know how it would have turned out if it hadn’t been for I Have a Dream Foundation.”
After graduating from Washington State University’s Vancouver campus with a degree in criminal justice, Pagola works in the state’s juvenile rehabilitation program at Green Hill School in Chehalis. The medium- and maximum-security facility provides education and vocational training for older male juvenile offenders.
“I always wanted to work with at-risk youth,” Pagola said. “I Have a Dream gave me an opportunity. It’s my duty to give back.”
The 32-year-old acknowledged that when he was a youngster, “I made some wrong decisions.”
The neighborhood around Washington Elementary was considered economically depressed, with a sizeable population of at-risk children.
“That’s why it was first in line” for the I Have a Dream program, Pagola said. “I could have wound up at a place like the one where I work. It helps me relate to kiddos at work.”
The promise of financial aid for college was the high-visibility part of the program, but there were more immediate elements that helped keep Pagola on track, including summer programs and after-school activities.
Things got more complicated as Pagola got older, when he came to grips with the fact that he was not a U.S. citizen.
“Once I hit high school, I opened up to the situation: What do I have to do to get citizenship?”
There also were other things at stake 15 years ago as he approached graduation at Fort Vancouver High School.
Because of his citizenship status, “He would have had to pay out-of-state tuition at Clark College,” said Deanna Green, longtime project coordinator. “We went wherever we could, trying to figure out how to help this young person.”
Help arrived in 2003 when Gov. Gary Locke signed House Bill 1079. It allowed undocumented students who met academic and residency requirements to pay resident tuition at state colleges.
“We got to see Gov. Locke sign it,” Green said. And since the I Have a Dream participants in Vancouver were tracking that legislation so closely, “The first ‘1079’ students were at Clark College.”
That did not solve Pagola’s citizenship issue, however.
“I had to go back to Mexico,” he said. “I was one semester from graduating from WSU Vancouver and had to leave college.”
While living in Mexico for about three months, he took online courses to keep up with his college work. After two hearings before a U.S. immigration judge, Pagola was able to get a green card and return to Vancouver.
“My wife sponsored me. She was born here. Through her, I was able to get a pathway to become a resident,” he said.
While completing his final semester at WSU Vancouver, “I immediately applied for a student loan,” Pagola said. “I had been taking I Have a Dream help for so long.”
Pagola became a U.S. citizen about nine years ago.
During the long process, the sponsors, mentors and volunteers in the I Have a Dream program “provided amazing support, and connected me with the right individuals,” Pagola said.
He cited Bill Byrd, Ralph Gilbert and Leslie Durst in particular.
And, when Pagola became a U.S. citizen, “Bill Byrd gave me an American flag. I fly it on July 4.”
Keeping Mary Granger’s dream alive
‘I Have a Dream’ program filled largely with successes, lasting connections
She had a dream.
Mary Granger unveiled Vancouver’s version of the I Have a Dream program to 60 fourth-graders and their families at Washington Elementary in 1995.
Now 300 young adults are keeping it alive. Some are on the job. Some are still pursuing educational goals. Some have kids of their own — another generation that will benefit from Granger’s idea.
The philanthropist died in 2010, and I Have a Dream of Southwest Washington officially ended in June 2017. But she is being remembered in a way that continues to help the people whose lives she touched.
The remaining $490,000 in the local I Have a Dream account was used to fund a new program. It’s the I Have a Dream Scholarship in Honor of Mary Granger; it is managed by the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington — which Granger helped found in 1984.
The top two priorities for scholarships are members of the four Vancouver elementary classes in the I Have a Dream program and their children, said Deanna Green, one of the program’s longtime project managers. (People who are in or who have been in foster care in Clark County also are eligible, if money is available.)
It’s not just the money that has staying power. So do the human connections that have been established over a couple of decades.
“The I Have a Dream network is extensive,” Green said. “We have students we still mentor through life.”
Green has moved on to the Community Foundation, where she does some of the same work as manager of 60 scholarships and also is a program associate.
The program is not to be confused with a federal immigration program for children that has a similar name. Instead, Granger was inspired by a national program started in New York by Eugene Lang. In 1981, Lang promised a sixth-grade class in East Harlem that he’d help all 61 children pay for college tuition if they stayed in school. Borrowing from Martin Luther King Jr.’s classic 1963 speech, Lang named it the I Have a Dream program; it went national in 1986.
The Vancouver-area program debuted at Washington Elementary, and another followed two years later at Hough.
“We’re so pleased with the progress of the first program, it was fairly easy to find (donors) to sign up to get the second one going,” Granger said in 1997.
Projects at Harney and King elementary schools brought the total to four — all chosen because they were in low-income neighborhoods. Eventually the program enrolled about 340 children, although organizers have lost touch with 35 of them.
On the adult side, 17 sponsors contributed about $2.2 million. The money wasn’t all for scholarships; it also funded project coordinators who provided the students with day-to-day guidance and support.
For their payoff, they got to see about 89 percent of the students in those four classes graduate from high school on time. (In Vancouver Public Schools, 80.4 percent of high school students in the class of 2016 graduated on time.)
About 70 percent continued their educations after high school.
Two dozen are still working on their college degrees. Maybe they’re late bloomers, students pursuing advanced degrees or people balancing college with jobs and family responsibilities: they’re still getting support, even though the money comes from a different account.
Over the years, Green and other I Have a Dream adult staff members, sponsors, mentors and volunteers have seen a lot of high school graduations.
Green also has attended some funerals. Not all I Have a Dream stories have had happy endings: Five participants have died over the past couple of decades.
But mostly, Green has been able to witness quite a transition process since she was hired as a project coordinator in 1998. The oldest of those students are 35 now, Green said, and the youngest are 24 or 25.
When she hears from the former students these days, “It’s more often success stories: invitations to weddings and baby showers,” Green said.
“I got a text the other day from someone who wanted to share getting a supervisor position at work.”
Green is looking forward to a lot more success stories as these 300 young adults move forward in their lives. It isn’t just a matter of fulfilling a dream voiced 23 years ago by Mary Granger, by the way. Maybe they can follow her example, Green said.
“We hope to see them in a position where Mary Granger was.”