Hometown Hero

When Hometown Hero Beverly Graham finds time to be by herself, she doesn’t need much more than a guitar, her usual perch in her kitchen, and visits from family and family pets to make a good day a perfect day. - Cynthia Woolbright
When Hometown Hero Beverly Graham finds time to be by herself, she doesn’t need much more than a guitar, her usual perch in her kitchen, and visits from family and family pets to make a good day a perfect day.
— image credit: Cynthia Woolbright

The light of the streetlamp illuminated an elderly man, with a long white beard, rummaging through a trash can on the street corner in Pioneer Square. The image stuck with Beverly Graham.

“Someone should do something. That could be somebody’s grandpa,” she thought.

It wasn’t long before the thought changed to “I should do something about that” and the rest, as they say, is history.

It has been 16 years since Graham — a song writer, vocalist, inspirational speaker, wife, mother, and humanitarian — started packing lunches on her kitchen counter and passing them out in downtown Seattle. Her effort, which eventually became Operation: Sack Lunch, has long since moved out of her kitchen and serves over 18,000 meals per month to homeless men, women and children in the Seattle area. Meals are just the beginning of the outreach provided by Operation: Sack Lunch; OSL also provides clothing, hygiene kits, and sleeping bags to the homeless and the working poor as well as social education to schools, businesses, and organizations.

Although Graham has received numerous awards for her work through the organization, she didn’t start the organization out of a burning passion to save the world.

“I did it to make myself feel better,” she said. “Why would or should someone else do it? For me it became ‘walking the walk.’ The passion came later, as I was serving and I saw that people had names and faces and stories.”

As she talked about this recently in her Clinton log home, Graham turned to the window, eyes glassy with tears. Her speech, usually as speedy as that of an auctioneer, downshifted to first gear.

“Once while we were handing out sleeping bags, a homeless man took a bag and I never even looked at him until I realized he hadn’t moved on. When I glanced up at him, he looked deep into my eyes, took my hand in both of his, smiled and nodded. Time stopped. I knew I had just handed Jesus Christ a sleeping bag. That’s what I live for, to see God looking back at me through others’ eyes.”

She tells of meeting a 450-pound homeless woman whose legs were covered with ulcers and who wore no shoes because her feet were too big.

“Even the most hurkin’, burley men got out of her way,” Graham said. “She set fear in everyone’s heart. She was mean. One day I found out why, this woman had never once experienced love. Can you imagine? No one had ever loved her!”

Keith Mack, who met Graham through the Giraffe Project, knows how and why she does what she does.

“When confronted with the grinding poverty and desperation that afflict many of our brothers and sisters, Bev can’t look the other way, she doesn’t know how. She looks into the faces, eyes and hearts of hungry men, woman and children who are no different from you and me. Jesus once asked a disciple. ‘Do you love me?’ Surprised, the disciple said, ‘Of course I do Lord.’ Jesus said ‘Then feed my sheep.’ Nowhere does Jesus say, ‘Feed only the sheep that deserve it.’”

Mack said Graham knows everyone deserves kindness and compassion.

“I have rose-colored glasses on and off at the same time,” Graham said. “I see the best and the worst simultaneously. This gives me both hope and grief. Even if I don’t like you at all right now, I know that we are all born naked, squealing and equal in the eyes of God. That’s why I write the music I do. I think our differences make the world go round, and we need to embrace them,” she said. “The cruelty to each other and the need for power over each other and the planet must stop if the world is ever going to heal and be at peace.”

Earlier in her life, Graham had some learning to do for herself.

“I was a holy terror as a teenager. I was ruthlessly brutal with my own truth. I used to need to own my stage, be the star of my show, but I learned it is so much more enriching to invite others up on the stage with me, no queens or kings, no diva’s. This has been a long lesson for me. I have a tendency to raise my fists to God instead of bowing my knees in supplication.”

Her life changed when a friend suggested that she examine her motives. She took that to heart, and even hesitated to be interviewed as a Hometown Hero.

“I questioned my motives,” she said. “But I am inspired by stories about other people, so I have to be willing to be a subject, too.”

Even our motives for love need to be examined at times, Graham said. She refers to “The Little Prince,” a story in which a prince living on a tiny planet owns what he believes to be the only rose in the universe. In the story, he loves the rose more than anything. One day he travels to Earth and sees many roses. When he returns home, he no longer cherished his rose. It wasn’t the rose he loved at all; it was its uniqueness that had captured his heart. In this vein, Graham said all of us have the opportunity to make commitments to our loved ones, but we should not love them just because they are rare, but for who they are.

Beverly lives in Clinton with her husband, Ken — also a musician — the couple’s three children, and 60 animals. Her image of peace is represented by a sight she witnessed recently from her kitchen window — a rooster sitting quietly on a fence flanked by two cats, and a dog laying at their feet.

In addition to cats, dogs, and chickens, Graham’s so-called “Coyote Cafe and Bad Animal Farm” supports a pot-bellied pig, llamas, a variety of birds and a billy goat.

In the midst of conversation in her kitchen, Graham is interrupted by a loud squawking upstairs.

“I have my mother tied up there, excuse me,” she teases.

Bounding up, then down the stairs with the energy of a 3-year-old, she reemerges with Queenie, a large white Cockatoo, which she places on a swinging perch in the kitchen. Hopper, her one-legged rooster, bounces into the room to catch the crumbs the bird drops, and a longhaired, gray cat settles into Graham’s lap.

Although Graham has Multiple Sclerosis and is affected by chemical sensitivities, she refuses to be a victim of anything.

“Life is full of booby traps,” she says. “A tree falls in my path. I can give up, sit down, camp there or find a way around it. Hell, I sometimes put that damn tree in my own path.”

To make it around or over those trees, Graham suggests we think of ourselves as superheroes who make things happen through the power of will. A former competitive body builder, Graham can see her own inner superhero.

“In my mind I’m big, huge, 6 feet, 4 inches tall with monstrous biceps,” said Graham, who is just under 5 feet tall. “I saw a video once of a performance we did at Benaroya Hall. I was the smallest person with the highest heels on stage.”

What she might lack in height, Graham makes up for in getting things done. No task is too intimidating to be tackled.

“I have been given the gift of excess energy, both my body and mind are always moving. The four words, ‘I have an idea’ always strikes fear into my family. My daughter says, “Quick, tie her up, don’t let her speak it!”

Graham encourages others who think they might not have the talent or the time or the energy she does to do what they can.

“We all have gifts, and it doesn’t have to be a huge thing we do, as long as we do something. What we have to share right now matters,” she said. “We need to give 100 percent to each moment, because it may be the last one we have. My 100 percent may be different then yours, but it’s no more extraordinary, it’s simply what I do.”

Her 100 percent can also be intense, said Operation: Sack Lunch treasurer Kimi Cole Jones.

“She is so human that she makes appreciate that you are one too. She is terrible at math, she changes her mind, she screams, swears, cries, oh man, does Beverly cry. She makes an excellent spokeswoman to the Mayor of Seattle. She tells jokes, she laughs, she loves her family. Beverly encourages us to be truly and undeniably human.”

Peter and Marie Morton, who moved to Whidbey Island in 2004, have experienced much of who Beverly Graham is through her music — which Graham often performs on South Whidbey. They say they like her songwriting for its combination of compassion, love, activism, spirituality, rhyme and humor.

“Beverly is out for no less than to change the world, and by golly, if people listen and act as she suggests, that’s what will happen,” Peter Morton said. “She is a remarkable person, a moral example of altruism with an attitude.”

Another friend and fan of Graham’s, Keith Mack, states that Graham is both humbling and elevating.

“Humbling, because I am in awe of her courage and compassion. Elevating, because I know that what one has done, someone else can do. Who is that ‘someone else?’ It’s me and it’s you.”

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