28 Feb Meet Jessie Strauss
This is the first in a new series of blogs about people in our community that inspire us to be active, healthy and engaged as we age.
Jessie Strauss led a satisfying and full professional and personal life up until her retirement and she had no intention of slowing down. Now in her 70’s she’s used that free time to touch the lives of people internationally with her commitment to Habitat For Humanity and the Guatemalan anti-poverty program Safe Passage while locally she continues energetic engagement with family and community. Her humanitarian contributions and vibrant living won her recognition in 2012 as Senior Services Inspiring Senior of the Month and, in 2013, as Outstanding Senior Volunteer of the Year for Washington State.
Strauss viewed retirement as an opportunity to pursue a wide range of goals. Before her last day at work she was already busily making the list of things to do. On that list were playful ideas such as joining Sweet Adelines or attending clown school and adventuresome ones like hiking with the Mountaineers or taking a walking tour through the British Isles where ancestors lived. There were inquisitive ideas like joining a book group or learning handwriting analysis and there were humanitarian aspirations. Twenty percent of her goals supported her dedication to helping others. Today, she’s reached more than 50% of them!
Strauss’ work has always focused on improving community and individual lives. With King County Metro she used her civil engineering degree, gained at the age of 54, to help implement Flex Pass, Bike to Work, and Van Pool programs. Prior to that, she applied her M.Ed in Hospital Recreation toward assisting seniors and people struggling with mental illness. She’s always been a community builder volunteering at church and other functions. And she’s always enjoyed good friends. Still close to her childhood Girl Scout troop she jokes, “There are 500 years of marriage among us!”
Volunteerism is a foundation in Strauss’ life. She took her first Habitat For Humanity trip 17 years ago having heard about the organization’s international involvement while on a vacation to Mexico. She remembers admiring a 73 year old Habitat team member then and thinking, “Wow, isn’t that something.” Habitat work, hard and physical, seemed like a difficult challenge for someone over 70. She laughs about those impressions now. She’s been leading two or three trips a year since her retirement and, at 75, continues to plan for more. To support her strength for those trips she usually starts her day with a walk or visit to a local gym. She keeps up with her Spanish by joining a small local weekly language group she heard about on a Habitat trip to India. She keeps her mind active by playing bridge, canasta, and mahjong.
Since she was a child, Strauss said, she’s sought out unusual experiences. That drive was an initial reason to pursue a Habitat trip. “I wasn’t expected to do it,” she said. But after building houses in 14 different countries, meeting people whose lives had been swept away by a Tsunami, or who live in houses made of mats or scrap-wood her life has changed. The trips, she says, increase her interest in world affairs and give her greater awareness of issues that impact other countries. They cause her to pause when she considers large purchases knowing that the money spent could buy a nicer house for someone in another country walking on a mud floor now and they expand her circle of friends. Many of Strauss’ team members stay in touch, visit and go on multiple trips together. “Habitat trips made me more aware of how easy my life is and how much I have,” she said. “I sometimes lie in bed at night noticing the temperature is just right. I hear my washing machine running and know I didn’t have to go to a river to wash them, nor carry them back on my head. The condominium I live in would hold 18 people somewhere else. How different and easy my life is compared to a lot of other people in the world.”
She got involved with the Guatemalan organization Safe Passage after discovering the program during a conversation in a hotel lobby at a Habitat event. Safe Passage, or, in Spanish, Camino Seguro, a top rated charity in 2012, brings education and support to children of families that work the garbage dump in Guatemala. “I really wanted to do something for the poorest of the poor,” Strauss said. Since that encounter, she’s returned to Safe Passage with a team. Having accomplished her goal of attending clown school by then she brought her clowning tools and tricks along— to the joy of all the children. When Stauss speaks about her travels she often talks about the good work of Safe Passage and was delighted to learn that she inspired a friend to follow the organization and, in addition, to pledge a donation in Strauss’ name. One of the lessons children learn from the support and education at Safe Passage is that life has potential when you pursue your dreams. In a Safe Passage video eighteen year old Junior Rollingstone Perez, formerly a child worker at the Guatemala dump says, “Everything is possible if that’s what you want.” That young man knows now that dreams can be realized. Jessie Strauss shows us how to make them come true!