Spring 2003

Lutheran Volunteer Corps works for social justice in Tacoma and around the nation

by Katherine Hedland '88

She adjusts the knit hat on a 2-year-old girl and helps a little boy navigate down a step as children clamor around her on the playground in downtown Tacoma.

When Karla Nelson decided to work for social justice as a member of the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, she didn’t know that could mean simply comforting a toddler. But caring for these delicate children – reading to them, taking them outside to play, making sure they get a home-cooked meal – is important work, and Nelson looks at the opportunity as a blessing.

"I didn’t want a normal job, and I liked the idea of sustainable living," said Nelson, a 2002 graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. She is one of six members of the Lutheran Volunteer Corps based in Tacoma. She works at First Place for Children’s downtown day care center. Many of the children there have great needs. All are from low-income families. Some have been neglected or abused.

"For some of these kids, we are their stable place," said Becky (Hucko ’79) Fontaine. "For others, we are the place they get fed."

LVC organizer Robert Hasselblad ’72 and Becky (Hucko ’79) Fontaine, executive director of First Place for Children, pose with dozens of stuffed animals donated for children served by First Place.

Fontaine is the executive director of First Place for Children, which provides day care, parenting services and other resources to low-income children at six sites in the Tacoma area, including PLU’s East Campus. First Place cares for 232 children every day, ranging in age from four weeks to five years. Fontaine wanted to become involved with LVC because of the benefit to both her agency and the community.

"The staff at the center downtown would say they don’t know what they’d do without Karla," Fontaine said. "She is really an integral part of that center."

This is just one example of how Lutheran Volunteer Corps is reaching out to the community. Many alumni work to make the program a success in Tacoma. And so far, 16 PLU grads have joined LVC in other cities.

Volunteers commit to a year of working for social justice, living in intentional community and simplified living. In Tacoma, that means sharing a house with five people and living on a meager stipend. Their rent is subsidized by the agencies they give their time to. Volunteers do not have to be Lutheran.

"It’s a great service to the community in an area that’s fighting to keep its head above water," said Lois Bekemeier ’82, one of the founding members of the local support committee that brought LVC to Seattle and Tacoma in 1995 and ’96. Bekemeier’s husband, Luther, was vice president for development from 1976 to 1992 and also serves on the local support committee.

"This is the best-kept secret in the Lutheran community," said Robert Hasselblad ’72, who is on the local support committee and in the fall succeeded Lois Bekemeier as the Tacoma representative to the national steering committee. He and his wife, Kathleen ’89, ’94, help volunteers get settled, show them around town and provide support during their year in Tacoma.

"We just fell in love with this program and these young people," he said. "It was a fit for both of us."

This years Tacoma volunteers (five women and one man from all over the country), have different community placements: First Place, Epworth LeSourd United Methodist Church, Habitat for Humanity, Sexual Assault Center, Nativity House drop-in homeless shelter and L’Arche Tahoma Hope Community, which works with people with disabilities.

Katie Gilliam ’02, left, and Jill Muhm ’01 are serving with Lutheran Volunteer Corps right now. Gilliam is in Wisconsin, and Muhm is in Washington D.C.

Former Campus Pastor Martin Wells was integral in bringing the program to the Puget Sound area, and others with PLU connections help make the program a success.

LVC also serves communities in Baltimore, Chicago, Milwaukee, Wis., Minneapolis-St. Paul, Washington, DC, and Wilmington, Del. The national organization, which operates independently of any church body, hopes to expand into other cities as more volunteers join. There is also
a program called LVC Plus available to older people who want to volunteer.

Volunteers from PLU include Katie Gilliam ’02, who works as an administrative paralegal at Legal Action of Wisconsin, and Jill Muhm ’01, who is in her second year of volunteering, now at N Street Village in Washington DC

"A lot of young people who come in for a year, end up going into the ministry, social service or education," Bekemeier said. "It’s not just a one year thing, it’s a lifetime of service."

For more information, go to or call 202-387-3222. Members of the local committee are also happy to make presentations in the community.

Spring 2003 Scene Copyright © 2003 Pacific Lutheran University
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