Rochester is one of several south Thurston County towns that are often overshadowed by their bigger neighbors to the north – the Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater urban area. (Although, we have to acknowledge, our bigger neighbors to the north – Seattle and Tacoma – probably snicker when we call ourselves “urban.”)
In fact, Rochester is not even officially a town. Because it’s not incorporated, its government label is a “census designated place.” And although the “place” as defined by the census just includes the area around Rochester’s single stoplight, locals are more inclined to define the community by the boundaries of the Rochester School District, which serves about 2,300 students in an area that includes Grand Mound (home of the Great Wolf Lodge, visible from the freeway) and a sizable rural area of chicken and dairy farms, blueberry fields, and organic vegetable farms.
Rochester has a strong community identity, but that identity is complicated. It is part middle-class bedroom community of people who commute to Olympia, part farm town, part low-income refuge from higher Olympia rents, and part Latino community. It is also a town that celebrates its Swedish heritage with an annual summer festival, and a town that people drive straight through to get to the Lucky Eagle Casino or to the beach.
It’s a tough place to live if you don’t have a car, because there is very limited rural transit service that connects with Intercity Transit in Tumwater. Without a car, it would be almost impossible to work in Olympia and live in Rochester. And because the town is small, it would be a money-losing proposition to provide more frequent transit service.
There is also not a lot for kids to do: no movie theater, no bowling alley, no rock climbing wall, no skate park – in fact, no park at all except for a playground behind the school district headquarters.
It was these deficits that brought together a small group of parents in 1993 to found the Rochester Organization of Families (ROOF) to create safe activities for kids – especially low-income kids – such as drug-free dances, Halloween celebrations, and help with schoolwork. The parents recruited school personnel, a pastor, local business owners and the sheriff’s office to an advisory board.
Over the years, ROOF has cobbled together grant funding, and added paid staff and more services: a food bank, parenting classes, English language instruction for adults, rental assistance (when funding is available), income tax preparation, clothing, help navigating other programs, and a variety of emergency services, such as replacing a leaking window in a run-down mobile home.
Still, its main focus is helping children succeed in school and life. ROOF’s Kids Place program provides intensive after-school programs for 50 primary students with six teachers, and door-to-door transportation. Eighty percent of these students speak Spanish at home. Of the 50 students, only two had internet access, so Kellie McNelly, ROOF’s executive director, got busy writing grant applications. The Boeing Employees’ Fund financed the purchase of 25 Chrome books and an internet connection so these kids can access online schoolwork.
ROOF is not alone in its efforts; there is a Boys & Girls Club close by, and some kids participate in Future Farmers of America programs. Still, for low-income kids without transportation, options are limited.
According to McNelly, 86 students in the Rochester School District qualify for homeless services. Just 79.6 percent of the district’s students graduate from high school on time – about 10-15 percentage points less than the county’s urban districts.
At the food bank, about 50 households identified themselves as homeless through the summer and fall this past year, but that number plunged to nine by December. McNelly says no one really knows why the number dropped so suddenly, or what happened to those people. During the annual Point in Time census of homeless people in late January, only six homeless people showed up to be counted.
The struggle of people in poverty is certainly not the only important feature of the Rochester community, and it would be wrong to suggest that the community as a whole is not concerned about its neighbors in need. But what is distinctive and troubling about the rural poverty in Rochester and places like it is the impact of isolation. There are simply fewer opportunities, fewer community resources, and less access to the supportive services that help people improve their lives.
It’s a near miracle what ROOF manages to accomplish with its $300,000 a year budget, and there can be no doubt that its investment in children’s success will have an impact. McNally says she is also encouraged that the Latino community is beginning to find its voice and speak up for its needs. Those are definitely reasons for hope.
But today, for the poor of every ethnicity in Rochester, it is literally a very long road to prosperity. They need a lift.