Some gravitate only to those who are popular, have influence, wealth or superficial outward appearance.
Mike Etzell, current hometown hero, sees and looks for a person’s heart.
“Mike has a huge heart. He is a force of nature when it comes to advocating for our island families,” Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said. “Mike has greatly expanded opportunities and strengthened connections for those seeking better accessibility in our community. He makes a positive difference every day.”
Etzell works as a developmental disabilities coordinator for Island County, where his passion for helping others shows through. The extra attention he puts into his work would make him exemplary by itself. However, he’s impacted the community by volunteering and devoting his time in a myriad of ways. A sampling of some of his involvement: Big Brothers Big Sisters, Special Olympics, Father’s Network, Little League, People First, county jail, Coupeville Hearts & Hammers, and the list goes on and on.
“I just do my little bit; as Desmond Tutu wrote, ‘Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world’,” he said.
Etzell’s son, 18-year-old Nicholas wrote, “With all of the volunteer activities my dad’s involved in, you might think he couldn’t spend as much time being an excellent father. But nothing could be further from the truth. He is the kind of father to me and my siblings, that every person could hope for. He has always been my biggest influence. He is the kind of father, with unwavering faith, positive, unconditional love and energy. He chooses to volunteer his time for others in need, rather than solely on himself. The energy he brings to every aspect of life is contagious, and one I want to emulate.”
Etzell said his own parents were outstanding role models, as community leaders, parents, and spouses to one another. Etzell learned at age 14 that outward appearance says nothing about who someone is inside.
“My father was an established community leader as well as respected and successful attorney,” he said. “For some people in the community their view of him shifted when he became ill. He was diagnosed with PLS (primary lateral sclerosis), which mirrors ALS (Lou Gehrig’s). His speech was affected, and his inability to walk caused him to be disabled outwardly. Yet inwardly he was the same person, perhaps even stronger mentally. I observed how people’s body language and interactions discounted him and his abilities. Meanwhile, the silver lining; our family rallied together over the years, and became even closer because of his illness. My father was determined to be a breadwinner, and role model he always had been for our family and community. He created and managed five self-service car washes as they did not require his voice or body for success, simply his business acumen, oversight and direction. My father’s determination made it so he still was able to put all eight of us kids through private college. My sheer awe and admiration for him only grows, as Kristi and I work to put our kids through college today.”
Perhaps this inspired young Etzell to volunteer summers at Camp Confidence for the physically and developmentally disabled and the local state hospital for the mentally challenged.
“After college I began teaching elementary school,” he said. “I loved being a teacher, yet I struggled with trying to teach all levels of students. So I decided to concentrate on the kids that were further behind – found that their effort and interest in learning was unmatched.”
He said this work has been a path to his fulfillment and contentment.
Etzell said he truly believes all people have skills and abilities to give to this world.
“Our challenge as a society is to first acknowledge and then help foster the gifts and sometimes hidden talents every single person has,” he said. “The truth is our communities and families are stronger when we fan the flames of each person, no matter the outward appearance. My passion in the past 30 years in my work and non work life has centered around supporting everyone, no matter the outward appearance, to contribute. I have seen families, communities, businesses thrive when they value each member no matter — especially those who often are not valued.”
He said he is energized when each person is valued and the community sees that everyone — no matter outward appearance — has something to contribute. He said he derives so much fulfillment by helping others help themselves overcome challenges, and life’s obstacles or disappointments.
Etzell has volunteered with inmates to help them learn new skills in parenting, and life skills. He said he believes “if we want different behaviors from people, we ought to teach the skills to achieve those. Not much different than all of us, as we are all interdependent, and in need of help at times.”
He enjoys reading nonfiction literature that involves the human spirit rising to some of the greatest challenges of survival; stories such as “Endurance,” “In the Heart of the Sea” and “Alive.” Etzell said he has learned a tremendous amount from his own failures, challenges, obstacles or even heartbreaks.
“Mike is such a caring person, and has the ability to connect with those who have special needs and make them feel important. He brings along his sons who happily help with Special Olympics basketball practice,” Helen Welch remarked, “Our son Mark thought the world of coach Mike and always knew Mike would patiently listen anytime and care about what was important to Mark. When our son Mark passed way in December 2017, Mike brought the entire team to Mark’s memorial service. Mike cared so much about Mark that he retired Mark’s Jersey. I see them hold up Mark’s jersey when they win, this really touches my heart.”
Etzell reflected on Mark: “In so many ways Mark was the heart and soul of the team, he was enthusiastic, and was all about the team. He will always be forever missed. His memorial, while heartbreaking and a challenge, was an opportunity for team mates to experience this sadness in a safe place with team support. Often times we shield people from difficult and tragedy in life, robbing them from the opportunity to grow. Most of my valuable learning has come through incredible challenge and mistakes I have made. Why deny this opportunity for Mark’s teammates?”
Etzell exemplifies a “hometown hero” as a compassionate motivator who coaches and leads with an ever-present sense of humor and an ongoing mission and vision to help others in a multitude of ways, said educator Jeanette Ashworth.
“He deeply understands the many challenges and obstacles that people face,” she said. “As an athletic coach for the community and Special Olympics, he creates an environment where all feel welcome, valued and empowered to achieve their personal best.”
He is helping to change lives for the better for countless of people. Where some look to outward appearance or achievements, Etzell looks to the heart and soul of a person.
MORE ABOUT Mike Etzell
Michael (Mike) Damian Etzell — Damian after Fr. Damian of Hawaii’s leper colony
Born: March 25, 1966 Mankato, Minn.
Parents: Dad was an attorney, mom was a teacher, stay-at-home mom and grandmother
Siblings: Fifth of eight children
Education: Private Catholic schools, Loyola, Mankato College: St. John’s, Minn.
Children: Ben, 23, Marisa and Lucas, twins age 21 and Nick, 18.
Years on Whidbey: 20
Hobbies: Coaching, hiking, kayaking, camping, teaching Sunday School, ping pong, swimming, playing cards/board games, always open to a good road trip
Three South Whidbey people you admire? Each of these three people knows that what they can give to others is the path to a full-filling life. Kevin Lungren, his wonder and curiosity for life and care for others. Karin Watson, she treats each and every one as a gifted valuable person. Jackie Henderson, a collaborative solution-oriented problem solver.
What is something about you that is a given?
“Faith. I was raised in a large Catholic home, where faith was like air, part of my core.”
What are some of your best life decisions?
“First is marrying Kristi, then having children and moving to Whidbey.”
If you could ask God one question?
“Do you regret free will?”
Favorite books or authors?
“Anything by Dr. Seuss, or poems of Shell Silverstein. Books, Tuesdays with Morrie, and In the Heart of the Sea.”
If you knew you could not fail, what would you do?
“Buy a lottery ticket.”
What is something you should have done?
“Kept a journal, after becoming a father. Real life is crazier and more interesting than fiction. What a ride parenting is.”
“What a wonderful world.”