By: M.L. Stein
Seattle columnist brings joy to inner-city St. Louis youths sp.
IT’S NOT UNUSUAL for a local columnist to touch his community’s nerve center, but the impact of one Seattle Times column reached all the way to St. Louis.
The column, by Erik Lacitis, led to a campaign that brought 12 inner-city youngsters from St. Louis to a dream camping and hiking trip in the Pacific Northwest.
Their journey was the culmination of a two-year project that began when a reader sent Lacitis a clip from the Wilderness Society’s magazine about a group of St. Louis kids, the Dolphin Defenders, who had mailed the society a $950 check to help save the Northwest’s ancient trees. They had raised the money by collecting thousands of abandoned tires, aluminum cans and empty booze bottles strewn around their sagging neighborhood and selling them to a recycler.
Sensing a bigger story, Lacitis contacted Neil Andre in St. Louis, the adult head of the church-sponsored Dolphin Defenders, so named because of the habit of dolphins of forming a protective ring around one of their kind threatened by a shark.
Lacitis wrote his first column about the Defenders and their environmental project on Dec. 19, 1993. He quoted from the letter of an 11-year-old member of the group, who said: “My neighborhood is bad because I see people dump trash on the ground so they won’t have to walk to the dumpster . . . . There are also a lot of gangs and lots of shooting. People sell drugs on the corner and this scares me. If I see something I shouldn’t, then they might kill me so I don’t tell the police. I might also get shot by accident.”
There were other letters to him from the Defenders, Lacitis noted, adding: “Over and over in their writing, the kids say the same thing . . . . ‘We’ve got to keep this Earth like God made it, and not all dirty and polluted.’ “
At the end of the column, Lacitis told readers that for $5, they could buy a lifetime membership in the Dolphin Defenders. Its address was listed.
The column set off a landslide of donations from Seattle-area residents. But the crucial moment came after one local reader sent the column to his son-in-law, Jim Ryan, owner of a St. Louis millwork firm that turns out upscale furniture. Ryan and his wife, Lou, decided to turn the fund-raising into a project to transport the Defenders to the forests they helped preserve.
“I had never heard of the Dolphin Defenders,” Ryan told E&P. “But we felt those kids had to get out there, and if we didn’t do it, who would?”
The Ryans vowed they would finance the whole trip to the Northwest if they had to. They didn’t have to. Donations from Times readers totaled $14,000 and the Ryans kicked in another $7,000 to fly the 12 boys and girls, aged 10-16, to Seattle for their wilderness excursion. Volunteers offered lodging and other amenities in the city before the Defenders trekked to the Olympic Peninsula for camping, walks in the forest, chopping wood and encountering deer, eagles and other woodland creatures.
That was the easy part, said Ryan.
“The logistics, including permissions from parents, over two years were enormous,” he recalled. “We even set up tents in a gym so they could get the feel of outdoor living. They had never taken a trip so far from home.”
Andre put up posters and pictures of the Northwest wilds in the church and turned his backyard into a wildlife habitat, planting berry bushes and piling up 20 used Christmas trees. About 60 youngsters belong to the Defenders.
Even a veteran columnist like Lacitis was thrilled by what he had wrought.
“It’s seldom you write a column where you see such direct results,” he commented. “One of the great things was to see the looks on the faces of the kids when they got here. We write so many stories of tragedies, and to do one where something good happens ? and all grass roots ? it’s wonderful. It makes you feel good about what you do.”
?(“It’s seldom you write a column where you see such direct results,” he commented. “One of the great things was to see the looks on the faces of the kids when they got here.”) [Caption]
?(? Erik Lacitis, Seattle Times columnist) [Photo & Caption]