Although closing its doors, Puyallup Valley CSO leaves lasting impression on community

Puyallup Valley Community Services Office staff with Ramona Bennett, Puyallup tribe leader and Indian fishing rights activist.

Over the course of the last year, the Department of Social and Health Services has worked tirelessly to keep Washington residents, including DSHS staff and customers, safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Puyallup, doing so has helped the agency realize it can get community members what they need without occupying an entire building. But closing those doors doesn’t mean leaving the area. Quite the contrary, in fact.

“We are not our buildings,” explains Eddie Rodriguez, DSHS administrator for Region 3, where Puyallup is located. “We are more than our buildings and we are not defined by them. We are changing and adapting, becoming more nimble and more capable of meeting the needs of our communities, especially during these changing times.”

The decision to close the Puyallup Valley Community Services Office was not made lightly. It involved consideration of many stakeholder interests — from employees, labor unions and building managers to utilities, security staff and state and local elected officials. The planning team provided extensive data about customer traffic, types of programs accessed at the CSO and where people can go to continue receiving services, seamlessly. All due diligence was done and a sound business conclusion was reached not to renew the building’s lease in April 2021.

That’s not to say the decision came without a certain amount of heartache.

“We have a long and storied history here in Puyallup,” says Rodriguez. “It’s my home city. I raised my three children here and have been a resident for nearly 40 years.”

Rodriguez’s children went to school with those of Hilliary Bryan, the administrator for the Puyallup office, starting in kindergarten and going all the way through high school. Now the daughter of another coworker, management analyst Farid Baghirov, goes to elementary school with Rodriguez’s granddaughter. The same is true of WorkFirst coordinator Kerry Judge Kemp and financial coordinator Don Bowen, both of whom are Puyallup residents with children who attend area schools.

But it’s not just about coworker connections.

Puyallup Valley CSO staff with Lyle Quasim, former DSHS secretary and leader of Tacoma’s Black Collective.
Puyallup Valley CSO staff with Lyle Quasim, former DSHS secretary and leader of Tacoma’s Black Collective.
Puyallup Valley CSO staff with Lyle Quasim, former DSHS secretary and leader of Tacoma’s Black Collective.

Puyallup Valley CSO’s is a story of a dedicated staff who learn from their community partners and honor them for their shared responsibility for the health and well-being of their neighbors. Those partners and leaders include Ramona Bennett, prominent leader from the Puyallup tribe and longtime Indian fishing rights activist; former Washington state representative and Lieutenant Governor Cyrus Habib; and Lyle Quasim, previous secretary of DSHS, 50-year Pierce County resident and leader of Tacoma’s Black Collective. All three community leaders have CSO conference rooms named after them, and all spent time in fellowship and education with DSHS staff.

Truck loaded up for Toys for Tots with donations from Puyallup Valley CSO staff.

It’s also a story of mentors who have inspired and excited DSHS employees throughout their careers as public servants, encouraging each other to keep going and do everything in their power to help those whom they serve. Puyallup staff have been trained by Tacoma’s Rainbow Center experts to be resources and provide a safe space for LGBTQ+ community members. Each year they’ve filled trucks with donations for Toys for Tots, turning the previously mentioned conference rooms into Santa’s Pierce County satellite workshop to bring holiday cheer to families in need, singing songs and wearing festive attire.

While the doors to this particular building on Puyallup’s Main Street will close to the public on Feb. 26, people will still be able to find DSHS in the community. Prior to COVID-19, a staff member worked one day a week at the Puyallup Valley Municipal Court so that people being conditionally released from jail and ordered to apply for DSHS benefits can do so on the spot, and not have to go back to jail just for not signing up. Another staff member works at Senior Housing for Ageless Generations, or SHAG, in Puyallup to bring DSHS services directly to special-needs seniors. Other community stations are in the works for when it is safe to return to in-person service delivery.

“We live in this city. We pride ourselves on being good public servants and we are prepared to continue to meet the needs of our neighbors as we move forward,” Rodriguez says. “We’re doing a new thing, leading the way towards a new future for Community Services Offices in Washington. We hope everyone will stay tuned for our next chapter.”

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