Winter 2002

Salishan: Former campus pastor and students minister to and learn from residents of housing project

by Noreen Hobson '99

The sign on Suzanne Fiskes's door reads, "Amazing Lady Award," a tribute to her success and the way she encourages others.

Fiske ’99 is the drug elimination program coordinator at the east Tacoma housing project known as Salishan. She knows what life is like for many of her clients – the mother of three has lived on the streets and battled drug addiction. Fiske knows Salishan and the programs provided there can serve as a stepping stone for others to get off welfare and out of subsidized housing. She encourages people, in any situation, to go to college. "If I can do it, anybody can do it."

Her relationship with Salishan started when she was a student at PLU and accepted a work-study position in the administrative office. She’s now been there almost five years. Fiske is just one example of how PLU connects with the neighborhood, the largest federal housing project on the West Coast that is home to more than 3,500 people in 850 homes.

For Fiske, who majored in sociology focusing on race relations, Salishan is a place where she is welcomed and respected. It’s also a place where she can give back. She said residents and employees do not just see it as the buildings run by the Tacoma Housing Authority.

"It’s a community," Fiske says. "I just love it here. If I could live here, I would."

For years, former PLU Pastor and founder of the Eastside/Salishan Lutheran Mission Ron Vignec has ministered to that community. He is helped by his wife, Nancy, director of community and supportive service for the Tacoma Housing Authority. Their approach has been to build on the community’s strengths, rather than be limited by weaknesses. Ron Vignec modeled the mission he founded in 1985 after his experiences at PLU, where he was campus pastor from 1980-1985.

Markieta Marks '04 (left), Thuong Do ''02 and Pastor Ron Vignec
Markieta Marks '04 (left), Thuong Do '02 and Pastor Ron Vignec walk the path between the Indo-Chinese Cultural Center and the Tacoma Housing Authority Offices in Salishan.

PLU aims to send graduates into the world with knowledge and power. Salishan, which he lovingly refers to as "The University of Salishan" intends to send people with self-sufficiency out into the world. "It’s the same mission," said Vignec, known throughout Salishan as "Pastor Ron."

Vignec received the President’s Medal from PLU this fall for his community service. In addition to providing food and shelter, Vignec has fostered life-changing services in the community. From English-as-a-Second-Language classes to the multicultural gatherings held across the "campus," and a beautiful community garden, the community is thriving and improving.

"He has never used a pathology of poverty to solicit support," PLU President Loren J. Anderson said, "but he has instead rebuilt Salishan on community assets, talents and gifts."

Vignec asks people to recognize the individual gifts of others, creating hospitality and openness so everyone is embraced.

Salishan draws many other PLU students as well. Markieta Marks ’04 and Thuong Do ’02 both work at the Family Self-Sufficiency Center while completing their degrees. They appreciate having a chance to offer services to families – and to learn from them.

"PLU provides education. Salishan provides the place to carry what you’ve learned into the world," Do said.

Her family’s Vietnamese heritage and her bilingual skills and cultural understanding are key elements in the work she does. Salishan is home to many Vietnamese, Cambodian and Russian immigrants who live alongside Americans of all races, faiths and ages.

Marks and Do are a great example of how PLU and Salishan – which is derived from a multi-tribe Native American language and means people of many colors coming together – connect people. Raised worlds apart, they are partners in the office who complement one another in their work. Marks is a sociology major from Arkansas who enjoys studying the human condition. Do is a psychology major whose family emigrated from Vietnam. She enjoys one-on-one interaction.

As Salishan grows and changes in the coming years, PLU intends to play an important role with the community. "The PLU relationship might not have been highly visible, but it has been very meaningful," said Nancy Vignec.

A new program will strengthen that connection. Several students from the spring Trinidad and Tobago study abroad program, which has an important service-learning component, will share a home in Salishan next fall. They will live and work in the community as they continue their PLU studies, an example of the university’s mission of educating for lives of service and care.

Those who have already made the connection know it will be rewarding.

"I never knew what was missing until I came to Salishan," Nancy said.

Winter 2003 Scene Copyright © 2003 Pacific Lutheran University
Credits ~ Last Updated 12-11-2002 ~ Comments