Hometown Hero advocates for more appreciation in the world

What the world needs now … is more appreciation, not just for some but for everyone. Janice O’Mahony believes there is not enough appreciation in the world.

This month’s Hometown Hero is Janice O’Mahony.

What the world needs now … is more appreciation, not just for some but for everyone.

Janice O’Mahony believes there is not enough appreciation in the world.

Too little appreciation for what we have, and too little expressed towards others. O’Mahony believes part of her purpose is to spread more appreciation wherever she sees the opportunity.

She retired nine years ago from a 30-year career in the King County juvenile justice system.

“Retirement for Janice has only meant she no longer receives a paycheck,” says Carla Grau-Egerton, director of Island County CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate).

“Janice volunteers full time and her mind never stops thinking and imagining the possibilities. She cares about children and youth that we sometimes refer to as ‘at risk,’ and that is what brought Janice into my office,” Grau-Egerton explained.

“She wanted to volunteer as a CASA advocate, and her professionalism is remarkable. She keeps in constant contact with the children, answering their difficult questions with tact and wagonloads of kindness. The children for whom she advocates could not be better served.”

“O’Mahony is one of those people that lives quietly on the island,” says Chris Hurley, executive director of Goosefoot. “However she has remarkable rockstar-like talents and background.

“She was appointed and served as chair for the Governor’s Juvenile Justice Advisory committee. She also was motivated to volunteer on the Goosefoot board for our goals of helping to create a thriving community, a sustainable rural economy and affordable housing for all.”

As you walk up to O’Mahony and her husband Mike’s classic Craftsman bungalow, she swings open the door and greets you with a welcoming hug.

Seated across from her at their large kitchen table, the conversation deepens to noteworthy subjects within minutes. She explains that she’s really bad at superficial chitchat. At the same time her wit brings on side-splitting laughter.

While serving tea and homemade blueberry cheesecake, she talks about her best role models: her parents.

“My father was in the Air Force, and a hero in two wars. Because of his career we were always moving. Our parents knew how to make everyone around them feel appreciated and valued,” she recalls. “For example my mother, Virginia, always planted flower seeds and bulbs for the next occupants to enjoy after we moved.”

O’Mahony thinks back to how her family has honored her mother’s good works, and the challenge that parenting itself brings.

“In 2002, my brother and sisters and I developed a child protective bill that was passed by the Legislature. We lobbied for this bill under the name ‘The Virginia Project’ in honor of our mother and the decency and beauty she shared with the world,” she said.

“My parents really had the perfect marriage and I figured when I got married I would, too.”

She looks down at her clasped hands adding, “I married at age 20 and, sadly, we were divorced by the time I was 27.

About her two children she says: “I was surprised to find out that parenting is like planning a trip to Paris and landing in Patagonia instead. I should have appreciated Patagonia more than I did.”

She says she’s like a bipolar lion.

“I am a fighter for what I believe is right, but I am easily saddened because of all the pain in this world.

“It’s that dark 3 a.m. time when I sometimes wake up thinking about human suffering, ignorance and fear. I think some people have a kind of interior receiver that picks up other peoples’ anguish, and it’s difficult to shut that off. I think the only thing that combats that worry and sadness is faith. I’m still working on that.”

She believes all people are confused about life and insecure, fearing they won’t measure up. All behavior comes from love or fear, so it is important to reassure each other and fight being afraid. The world can be a hard place; O’Mahony says it’s important not to add to its stress and pain by being unkind.

Michael Lewis, O’Mahony’s 32-year-old son, says his mom cannot pass up others’ sufferings without trying to help.

“My mom makes the time to help others, even if it isn’t a convenient time, not relying on someone else to get the ball rolling.

“We once were in downtown Seattle on a really cold day when we saw a toddler, wearing only sagging dirty diapers, wandering on the street alone. He was poking trash with a stick,” he says. “We noticed a seemingly oblivious public ignoring the child. My mom in a split second made a

U-turn. She picked the child up in her arms and placed him in the back seat, intent on making sure the child would be properly cared for. That’s my mom.”

She is creative and pure of heart, says Judith Newpotz, a volunteer advocate.

“Her vivacious personality and lively wit sparkles with intelligence, as she listens with an empathic ear. She combines these talents to pour good into this broken world of ours. She is a powerful and articulate advocate for children,” Newpotz says.

“In 2001 she and her husband organized a giving group they named ‘Rainshadow.’ This is a group of 15 people she invited to join who each put in a yearly amount of money they agreed upon. They then intentionally look for people that make this world a better place. They all get together and tell the stories of unsung heroes they have learned about.

“Then the group sends out personal letters of appreciation and checks to each person,” she says.

Newpotz says it’s a personal, grassroots way to show appreciation for deeds that normally go unnoticed.

After 9/11, O’Mahony and her husband Mike, who had been an assistant police chief in Seattle for 30 years, desperately needed to find positive news and some hope in humanity.

“We had heard of something like a giving group, and started thinking about what we wanted to do in such a group. Rainshadow was the result,” she says.

“My hope is giving groups will become as popular as book clubs. People will join together in different ways to pool their money or resources, to express appreciation and to honor others. All these groups would look different, with different amounts of money, different ways of picking recipients. The details don’t really matter, it’s the idea of letting people know they are genuinely appreciated for their kindness or bravery or determination to make the world a better place.”

O’Mahony excuses herself from the table to get the Rainshadow packet.

“The stories are so very touching, we all need Kleenex at our gatherings.”

Holding a stack of treasured letters and cards, she says, “These are the heartfelt thank you letters we have received from recipients. We all meet and read these out loud together.”

She looks at the packet and her eyes start to tear up. She randomly pulls out a thank you letter.

“Here is a brave man that blew the whistle on a company he was a CEO of,” she says. “He found out the company was tainting a well in a developing country.”

She leafs through them, telling of a woman who took in ailing unwanted animals. She reads about an older couple that ran a dry-cleaning business, and when two youths came in for help they got not just a hand-out, but the couple became their foster parents.

“Oh, this one always gets to me; this woman who had always been wealthy and socially prominent … in one year she lost it all. Her husband divorced her and took her for everything. She was injured in an accident and suffered chronic pain.

“She ended up having to live in a rundown woman’s homeless shelter. The shelter’s residents were mostly mentally or emotionally challenged, or former drug abusers,” O’Mahony recalls.

“This woman spent her very meager funds on materials for teaching the women in the shelter art classes. She found a nutritionist to come to the shelter to help the women eat more healthily, and worked with her neighbors to plant a garden. She did this all while she was still in pain from her injury. The entire shelter literally bloomed because of this one woman.”

Groups like Rainshadow honor these everyday heroes by shining a light on the good they are doing, says Carol Cummings, Janice’s sister.

“I was honored to know one of their recipients. She took in a seriously-ill child, adopting him and shepherding him through many surgeries and medical procedures,” Cummings says. “Without this woman’s constant attention, this child would surely have died. She said to know a group of strangers appreciated her struggles enough to honor her, uplifted her at a perfect time.”

Cynthia Shelton, a good friend says: “Janice’s generosity encourages others and wakes up people to help take them deeper into personal awareness.

“She shows appreciation in many ways and Rainshadow is a wonderful example. Nothing would make Janice happier than if the giving group concept started up in neighborhoods, garden clubs, dinner parties, and possibly, a high school student would start an appreciative giving group like this for their senior project.”

Appreciation is a language all can understand.

O’Mahony says, “Nobody gets enough of it, but that can change if people make an effort to notice, to speak up and to say thank you.”

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