Starr Knutson, a long-term-care ombudsman for Walla Walla’s Blue Mountain Action Council, said she was looking for a way to make a difference in people’s lives.

Knutson is one of thousands of other volunteers in Walla Walla every year, doing a plethora of duties to help fellow residents. Some find ways to help on their own, while some go through one of the many agencies offering programs and training, such as Blue Mountain Action Council, YWCA, law enforcement, Blue Mountain Humane Society, Christian Aid Center, United Way, Red Cross and others.

Speaking of her duties as an ombudsman, Knutson said: “A lot of it is talking to people in assisted living facilities and nursing homes. Or people may have a problem or issue with the facility where they’re living.”

After retiring from human resources, Knutson had time to give back to the community. That’s when she noticed an ad for BMAC’s ombudsman program about two years ago. She went through the free, required training from the Action Council to educate potential ombuds in how to advocate for people living in nursing homes or assisted-care facilities. Now, Knutson talks to residents for about three or four hours per week at Brookdale College Place and Eagle Springs Memory Care.

Although her background was in human resources, Knutson said she had trouble talking to strangers at first and struggled to earn their trust.

“It was really difficult,” she said. “It probably took a month or so before people began recognizing and trusting me.”

She soon had her first advocacy opportunity, however. A woman said her husband wasn’t receiving adequate care, so Knutson told the woman she would talk to the facility’s executive director. However, the woman became afraid and told Knutson not to say anything.

Since then, Knutson has advocated for other people. One had received letters from the Social Security Administration saying her benefits would end, Knutson said. After several weeks, Knutson contacted many people to straighten out the error.

These cases were just two of many where elderly people didn’t have family or friends nearby who were able and willing to help.

“If they’re having problems and don’t have anyone to talk to, they need some help,” she said.

Her work wasn’t trying to place blame on facilities, Knutson said.

“They’re trying to provide a good service, but if no one tells them that something’s broken, then they don’t know to fix it,” she said.

In another corner of the city, Debbie Mallard and Kathy Jones sorted through an abundance of donated clothes at the YWCA.

Mallard, who’s helped there for about two years, said the two started volunteering with the organization a couple hours per week after someone at their church, Pioneer United Methodist Church, asked the congregation if people could help the adjacent YWCA.

Jones said she started volunteering there about five years ago. The church also started a soup kitchen, showers for homeless, and a now-ended reading program for children among other things.

“It’s important to have it organized by size,” Mallard said, pointing to the neatly folded pants and hanging shirts.

When she started, Mallard said the approximately 8-by-8-foot clothes closet had no shelves to speak of and next to no clothing racks, besides being disorganized. Now the closet, which provides clothes to women and children leaving an abusive relationship, has more shelves and is better organized. And if clothes aren’t moving, she said they give them to Walla Walla Goodwill to help free space.

More than 300 women sought shelter and services at the YWCA in 2018, said YWCA’s executive director Anne-Marie Zell Schwerin.

The clothes closet “brings some dignity to people who haven’t experienced a lot of dignity,” Zell Schwerin said. Just having decent clothing did a lot for their self-esteem, she said.

The closet only accepts gently used or new items, as well as things in season, Mallard said, to ensure clothes are nice.

Although volunteers are usually up to their elbows in cottons, linens, and other fabrics, Mallard and Jones said they enjoy meeting the people they help, which happens occasionally. Mallard said it was fun to help women and children find clothes she thought would look good on them, especially because she had a good understanding of the closet’s inventory.

“It’s neat to see the people,” she said. “It makes it more rewarding.”

For about half a century, Jean “Punkey” Adams has given her time to helping others.

“I know when it started,” Adams said. “I was a newlywed and just moved to Walla Walla. My mother-in-law told me one of the best ways to meet people was to volunteer, so I followed her advice.”

Soon after, Adams started at the Lillie Rice Center and the YWCA. Since she had a 5-month-old child, teaching baby-sitting classes at the center was easy, she said, which was a role they were looking for at the time. She also said she joined the newcomers’ class at the Y. Eventually she wound up on the boards of both agencies sometime in the mid-70s.

Now she’s involved in many entities including the Sherwood Trust board. She’s also a Walla Walla Community College Foundation board emeritus, a Court Appointed Special Advocate, and a volunteer at the warming center. She’s involved also with homeless issues, her church’s soup kitchen, was a founding board member of the Community Council, and supports BMAC’s Commitment to Community.

“I just end up doing a lot of things,” she said.

Her advice for those who’d never volunteered?

“It just depends on what’s going on in their lives,” she said. “Volunteering here is a really good way to get to know people. The more you bring people together, the more you find you have in common. It makes a better community if we just come together.”

Emily Thornton can be reached at or 509-526-8325.

Emily Thornton covers courts and emergency services, as well as other various stories. She has been in the newspaper industry off and on since roughly 1999 and lived primarily on the West Coast, but also Florida and Europe.

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