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Rotary Club of Richland Riverside, Washington

The dusty hills of eastern Washington state are a stark contrast to the picture-postcard greenery of Mount Rainier and Seattle farther west. On a July day the desert air bears down, 104 degrees Fahrenheit, above normal for a region that is a major exporter of apples, cherries, wheat, corn, potatoes, hops, and grapes. The Columbia Valley and its Tri-Cities — Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland — sit roughly at the latitude of Bordeaux and Burgundy, and at least a dozen vintners are based in these three communities. An oenophile could trace 200 wineries, many with tasting rooms, within an hour’s drive.

Rotarians Rhoda Williams (from left), Jennifer LaCoste, Wendy King-Hastings, Jill Douglas Sanchez, and Scott Ashby.

Photo by NashCOPhoto  

Young professionals, many lured by lower costs and shorter commutes, have begun migrating from the coast. Among the newcomers is Jennifer LaCoste. The Seattle native and attorney was elected 2018-19 president of the Rotary Club of Richland Riverside — which calls itself “the little club with a big heart” — at the urging of her employer, Scott Ashby, past president of the club. “As people like me move into the Tri-Cities, they are looking for a better sense of community and family,” says LaCoste.

Richland Riverside was founded partly in response to generational changes in a community built as a company town. That company is the U.S. government, which in the 1940s constructed the 586-square-mile Hanford Nuclear Reservation, known as “the area,” about 25 miles to the northwest. The facility processed the plutonium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945, days before Japan surrendered to end World War II. 

“The people who came here (in the 1940s) were basically the same age,” notes club member Howard Rickard. 

Though plutonium production at Hanford ended in the 1980s (the facility’s mission mostly shifted toward the cleanup of radioactive waste, last estimated to cost tens of billions of dollars), in the early 1990s, discussions at the Rotary Club of Richland still centered on the nuclear facility. So in 1993, a group of bankers and store owners formed the Richland Riverside club. “They wanted a smaller club so that it could be more cohesive, and they wanted an informal club so that the friendships could be more intense than could be possible in the larger clubs,” says Harvey Gover, who joined the club two years later. Offering more flexible attendance rules and less shop talk, the new club chartered with 15 members, six of them women.

The group meets in the Vineyard Room of Anthony’s, an outpost in a chain of Pacific Northwest seafood restaurants; the restaurant’s general manager, Mike Tvedt, is club treasurer. “We have members from other clubs who visit, probably because we have the best lunch — and also for the personality,” says LaCoste. “We laugh a lot. We joke a lot. We like to have a good time and enjoy each other’s company. But at the same time, we manage to get things done.”

The day before, the Columbia Cup unlimited hydroplane races (think Formula One, helicopter-motor-powered watercraft reaching 200 miles per hour) had concluded on an expanse of the river between Pasco and Kennewick. “For those that went to the Water Follies, that’ll be a buck. Those who didn’t, that’s probably two bucks, so get your bucks out,” barks Rickard, the club’s fine enforcer. 

Rickard feigns irritation when member Yousef Farawila equivocates. “I went to a house where you could see it, but I didn’t look. I didn’t see any boats,” Farawila says.

“Nobody goes to see the boats! Everybody goes to the boat races to see the people,” Rickard retorts. Farawila hands over $3.

A decidedly more languid river event, the Mid-Columbia Duck Race, is the club’s primary fundraiser. It has proved its buoyancy over the past 30 years; the six Tri-Cities clubs that stage the contest have raised some $3 million for local charities. 

After the meeting ends, Fatima Traore, a friendly foil to Rickard, comes over. “They have a rivalry over who collects more money in fines,” LaCoste explains. Traore, economic development coordinator with the Benton-Franklin Council of Governments, also raises money by selling handicrafts from her native Mali; the proceeds support women there with postpolio syndrome. 

Where Traore is ebullient, Farawila, a nuclear engineer, is more reserved. Farawila describes his nontraditional path to service through Rotary: “That was a consequence of 9/11,” he says, explaining that the FBI interviewed him shortly after the attacks, based on his name and his interest in flying.

“I was flabbergasted, actually,” Farawila says. “So I told them, ‘I have a ton of friends — you can ask who I am.’ They said, ‘Really, we didn’t know of many friends. You aren’t really in public life.’

“I thought, maybe they have a point,” he says. “Right after that I was invited by Rotary to give a talk, and I thought, well, I need to be in public life. I need for people to know who I am and how I can contribute beyond my narrow nuclear field.”

He’s doing it in a place where, sandy soil and all, roots are planted. 

— Brad Webber

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