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Thursday, December 25, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Hallelujah to Seattle's citizen heroes

Special to The Times

This is a great time of year to remember — contrary to our celebrity-obsessed and media-driven culture — that ordinary citizens are the heroes who make Seattle a great city.

Think back. Remember the 1950s when Jim Ellis believed we could clean up polluted Lake Washington? Today, the lake is clean because Ellis had a vision, rolled up his sleeves, and worked tirelessly for the common good.

Remember when Dr. Leonard Cobb, a Seattle doctor, boldly declared we could save lives by rushing highly trained paramedics to the site of trauma and cardiac emergencies? Today, the Seattle Fire Department's Medic One emergency medical service is the envy of the nation.

Remember when Seattle Police Sgt. Larry Farrar put his patrol officers on bicycles in the early-1970s, a "crazy" idea that led directly to the capture of the Madrona rapist? Today, Seattle police officers, and police across the country, have bike patrols in nearly every neighborhood. Farrar acted on his intuition, a whole neighborhood breathed a sigh of relief, and police tactics changed forever.

This list of citizen-sparked accomplishments could go on and on — neighborhood food banks, and the preservation of Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square, to name a few. These accomplishments were launched by citizen heroes who cared deeply about their city. They dreamed what might be. They acted.

Who are the citizen heroes of today?

One is Suzzanne Lacey, who quit her job as a producer with KING-TV's "Evening Magazine" in 2000 to launch Museum Without Walls. Her programs to introduce students and young adults to "living witnesses of racism and intolerance" have taken students to the concentration camp at Dachau, outside of Munich, Germany, where they listened to Holocaust survivors, and to Bainbridge Island, where they met Japanese Americans sent to internment camps during World War II.

Lacey first dreamed of Museum Without Walls when she traveled through the South as a National Public Radio reporter to observe the 30th anniversary of the civil-rights Freedom Riders. "I met living witnesses who made the whole experience very real," Lacey explains. Today, she is helping others experience the evils of racism here and around the world. Lacey is a citizen hero helping to make Seattle great.

Another is Kjell-Jon Rye, a technology teacher at Seattle's Garfield High. In 1995, he founded Computers for the World, a grass-roots effort to rebuild abandoned personal computers and provide them to students in need in developing countries.

To date, nearly 2,000 computers have been cleaned, rebuilt, tested, packed and shipped by hundreds of Garfield students. Dozens of others have traveled overseas, unpacked and set up the computers, and then trained their peers how to use them. There have been 15 overseas trips so far; two more are scheduled this school year.

"I can change the world through 150 Garfield kids a year," Rye says in explanation. His program has given a new vision to hundreds of Seattle students, teachers and parents. Computers for the World is now being copied in other area high schools. Rye is a citizen hero.

Grayce Mitchell walked into Ballard High School six years ago and announced that she wanted to volunteer as the school's service-learning coordinator, helping students find opportunities to fulfill their 60-hour community-service requirement. She built the program from scratch.

Last school year, students at Ballard High contributed 32,000 hours of volunteer time. They worked in hospitals, served as after-school tutors, cleaned streams in Olympic National Park, wrote and performed skits for elementary-school kids to discourage bullying, and volunteered with the police and fire departments.

Mitchell proudly talks about how Ballard High students are seeing the world open up before them as they move outside their comfort zone and volunteer their time. She says many kids start dreaming new dreams about their own futures when they serve others. Mitchell is a citizen hero changing hundreds of lives each school year.

Seattle is a better place this holiday season because of what Lacey, Rye and Mitchell are doing with their powerful ideas and simple steps. They accomplish their feats through creative thinking and practical, tangible actions. They are some of the citizen heroes who make Seattle great.

When you gather with your family and friends over the holidays, think about the citizen heroes you know. Tell your children about them; help them see the difference between those whom our celebrity-crazed culture often promotes as heroes and the true heroes who do good things in our good city.

Timothy Burgess is co-founder of a Seattle-based international advertising agency serving nonprofit organizations. He served as a commissioner on the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission for 12 years. He was a Seattle police detective in the 1970s and a former chair of the Queen Anne Community Council. He can be reached at tim.burgess@thedomaingroup.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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