Note: All photos shared by or taken by Spring Roehm, unless otherwise noted
Seven years ago a South Whidbey woman enrolled in a substance abuse treatment program. She was homeless. Her five children lived with her sister. She hoped to be eventually reunited with them.
The following year, the young mother, who was in her thirties at the time, received help that changed her life.
“By 2017, I was clean,” Tanya Stager-Gran recalled in a recent interview. “We were placed in the House of Hope. We lived there four months with my husband and five children.”
Langley’s House of Hope opened Memorial Day of 2015. It continues to offer shelter for families and single adults who are homeless or severely at risk of becoming homeless. In Tanya’s case, she and her family lived in one room. It was there she found the hand up she needed to move on with life. Residents there are called guests, and you will see other ‘guests’ references throughout this story. The House of Hope is part of the Whidbey Homeless Coalition’s program to support the unhoused, which operates another center in Oak Harbor.
After sheltering at the House of Hope, Tanya and her family found housing in Freeland with the help of Faith Wilder, a co-founder and past president of the Whidbey Homeless Coalition.
“I had a really overwhelming sense of support and advocacy,” Tanya added. “I found my community through the House of Hope. When I left, I had the burning question, how could I provide that support to others?”
Tanya began talking with people who struggled with getting their lives back on track.
“As a mentor, I worked with others with substance abuse issues, and helped facilitate, recover and stabilize their lives to move forward,” Tanya recalled. “[This work] opened the doors and ignited my passion.”
That passion led to connecting on a real level with the island’s vulnerable population and helping them find resources. Eventually Tanya served as interim director of the Whidbey Homeless Coalition, after its former director resigned last year. She became the coalition’s official Executive Director last month. On June 15 she was honored for ‘selfless service,’ by the Whidbey Westside Rotary International Club.
From being homeless, to running the program that helped get her back on her feet, Tanya received support and encouragement along the way.
“She’s the most amazing young person,” said Judy Thorslund, on whose back patio we visited with Tanya to write this story. “I’ve watched her take living at the House of Hope—and she rose up like a star. She has taken on the whole ball of wax.”
Judy co-founded and served as past president of the Whidbey Homeless Coalition. She currently is a free agent who helps out with the unhoused population. She likes being known as the ‘Masked Avenger for Whidbey Island’s marginalized and vulnerable.’
Judy has known Tanya and her family for years. Tanya moved to South Whidbey 34 years ago when she was nine.
“I’ve known her a long time—she graduated with my son, Seth,” Judy noted. “Her mom is like long-time family. I knew Tanya’s husband Chris when he was in diapers.”
When she was younger, Tanya fell into a lifestyle which derailed until she realized she had to change. Judy was part of the metamorphic transition.
Impressed by Tanya’s newfound strength and ability to truly connect with troubled folks, Judy invited Tanya to join the Homeless Coalition Board. She mentioned how both she and Tanya were helped by Alcoholics Anonymous.
“AA echoes the belief that the addict and alcoholic’s, pain is so great that when they get their life back, they want to give back,” Judy said, turning to Tanya. “We have the heart. You always had it. Whidbey Island loved us back into the circle.”
While we visited, Tanya walked inside to take a phone call. It was from the sister of a guest whose family planned to move into the House of Hope. The ‘guests’ are a couple who are deaf and their five children who were waiting for stable housing since May 1. Two of the House of Hope ‘guests’ had just moved nearby to the new tiny homes village—Tiny Houses in the Name of Christ—and opened up a space for the family.
“They’re going to live in the same room my family did,” Tanya said after taking the phone call. She beamed with joy that the family were finally getting a home.
In her new role as executive director, Tanya coordinates fundraising, donor retention, finances, public and community engagement. But it’s helping the folks who need the services that remains her priority.
“My heart is working with guests in the program,” Tanya noted. “I follow through with case management. It’s the reason why I do this job.”
Once when driving to a coalition board meeting, Tanya spied a woman wearing a backpack walking along the road with her hands in the air. Tanya pulled her car to the side of the road and approached the woman.
“I said I could take you to the shelter,” Tanya recalled. “The woman said she was willing to go. I made the decision to go to the shelter. I called the board and said, ‘I’m going to be late, because I’m bringing a woman to the shelter.’ I pulled in to the meeting to drop off the board’s papers. I said, this is our mission statement, right?’”
Tanya’s whole family—including a new son, Jack—her sixth child, helps her, whether its arranging sleeping cots and food at the Haven Shelter in Oak Harbor, lending a hand with the new tiny homes residents, or meeting with ‘guests.’
Asked how she ‘sees’ and interacts with people others may find unbearable to look at, Tanya said, “Engage. During Covid, funding was given to us. So many were scared. We [Tanya and her husband, Chris] drove around assessing people’s needs and having important conversations. We’d ask, ‘What’s your name? What do you need? Are you getting your needs meet?’ My tools? Communication, empathy, relatability, connection. It’s our job to advocate for the voiceless. After several meetings, a door usually opens. We meet them where they are.”
Speaking of meeting them where they are, Tanya joined the Whidbey Westside Rotary International Club in its drive to support the annual Point in Time Count two years ago.
The state’s Dept. of Commerce works with the Federal Housing and Urban Development department—HUD—to coordinate the count. Each county in the state is required to take an annual Point in Time (PIT) count of the sheltered—those living in temporary housing, like couch surfing—and unsheltered, those living in uninhabitable conditions. Based on those figures, counties receive funding toward resources to help their marginalized populations. The Rotary coordinates getting donations of food, blankets, clothes and toiletries to distribute for the PIT count.
“I fell in love with them,” Tanya said of her work with the Rotary, which supports our community. “I saw could be the lead. I enjoyed having the community come together. Watching people progress. Seeing people get service. People who need mental health professionals. Giving the helping hand. Seeing the potential.”
Tanya’s willingness to be a part of peoples’ lives during their tough times prompted Gwen Jones, past president of the Rotary Club, and representative of the Rotary Foundation, which gives the Service Above Self Award, to choose Tanya as this year’s recipient.
Meeting at China City in Freeland June 15, Tanya was awarded a certificate, and the Paul Harris Medal. The Rotary donated $1,000 at the same time to the Whidbey Homeless Coalition in recognition of Tanya’s selfless work.
“To make a little history, this is the first Service Above Self Award signed by the first female Rotary president Jennifer Jones,” Gwen noted when handing Tanya the certificate.
Spring Roehm, who is interwoven with our local Rotary Club and South Whidbey’s network of community service, shared most of the photos for this story. About the award night June 15, Spring said in a voicemail: “Tanya was exceptional. She spoke so eloquently and educated the Rotarians on how they could help. [About] having the community support and help, so we can help moms, children and mental health–everything to help support the homeless. For the Point in Time Count, I’d like more advertising ahead of time for people to know it’s happening.”
Here’s to Tanya, who devotes her life to family and really providing help when it is most needed.
“We benefit from helping others,” Tanya noted. “At the end of the day when it’s rough, whether it’s getting a coat, new shoes…”
“… seeing a family in terrible straits,” Judy added. “They’re given a second chance through the House of Hope. I’ve known Tanya and what she’s been through. Seriously. Those are the people who get the bug for helping others.”