State Representative Debra Lekanoff visits Orcas

by Lena Kassa

Orcas Senior Center

“You are like my Auntie’s house,” said State Representative Debra Lekanoff to a group of 50 community members on Saturday, Sept. 9. “When I was growing up, my Auntie made sure I had everything I needed. She fed me. She encouraged me.” Speaking to the audience, “It is all of you who are making a difference. You are the aunties of the Salish Sea.”

Joining Lekanoff in celebrating National Senior Center Month at the Orcas Senior Center were Mark Tompkins, Director, San Juan County Health and Community Services, and Pegi Groundwater, Orcas Public Hospital District Commissioner. Topics covered everything from workforce housing and home health care to the value of public-private partnerships in bringing services to citizens.

Unsurprisingly, the first question from the audience had to do with ferries, and the sometimes tragic consequences that can result from not having a reliable ferry service. Representative Lekanoff appreciated that “ferries are your lifeline,” noting that among the ferry-served islands, only San Juan County is 100% reliant on the ferry system.

She added, “Unlike other islands served by Washington State ferries, there is no alternative route to ferries for getting here. This is what is unique about the San Juan Island ferries, so I think they should be treated in the manner of a crisis.”

She recognized that people’s lives are put in jeopardy from unreliable ferries; school children are left behind when ferries are canceled that would normally take them home; people can’t get to their jobs; and even food security is at risk. Because the legislature will only respond to data, she is working with the Orcas Chamber of Commerce and others to get seed money to collect the needed data. If the data demonstrate the crisis, then San Juan County can be declared as an emergency location for transportation, which would bring additional resources to bear that are otherwise not available.

Other topics of interest were those of home and long-term health care. One healthcare worker in the audience noted that home health care in the islands is both rural and seasonal, both factors which make it difficult to rely on for a steady income. Director Tompkins noted that other factors impacting health care workers, and workers in general, are lack of workforce housing, or any housing at all, and pay equity. Various housing options were discussed, including travel trailers and tiny homes. The audience responded with applause when Groundwater mentioned that Skagit Community College now provides home health training in Friday Harbor.

One audience member asked about HB1702, which would impose a local sales tax credited against the state’s sales tax to support programs for senior citizens. When asked about the prognosis for this bill, Lekanoff responded, “I think it has a worthy chance of going through” and suggested that the Orcas community advocate for the bill.

Participants enjoyed the music of Kanikapila, the Orcas Senior Center’s ukulele group, and some delicious food including homemade cookies. The Orcas Senior Center is a nonprofit organization that is entirely dependent on donations, grants and membership fees for its operations.