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OPINION: How strangers rescued an elderly homeless woman

December 29th, 2017 | CHARLES WOHLFORTH Print this article   Email this article  

Fred Ripp had a great Christmas. He went to the shelter, found a mentally ill homeless woman, and put her on a plane toward home.

Ripp and his wife Mary had read my column about Virginia Cook, who was released on the day before Thanksgiving by Alaska Psychiatric Institute and put in a cab to the Brother Francis Shelter.

Despite having a state guardian and money in the bank, Cook was left on the streets, penniless, without winter boots and dealing with serious health problems. She spent mornings sipping coffee at Bean's Cafe. She is 76 years old.

Ripp said, "We had been working for the last year remodeling our kitchen. I've been spending time thinking about the relative merits of granite and quartz counter tops. Then you read an article about this, and you realize you've been thinking about the wrong things."

A lot of readers contacted me. One showed up at the shelter with a duffel full of clothing and supplies Cook needed.

Ripp, who is a pilot for Alaska Airlines, sent an email through our website offering to escort Cook to Tucson, Ariz., using his travel benefits. (He also asked to remain anonymous, but I ultimately convinced him and Mary to let me tell their story.)

I forwarded Ripp's email to Cook's sister in Tucson, Darlyne Gallaway. She responded, "I believe we are going to have my sister's plane fare covered, but she may need help getting to the airport, checking in and boarding her flight. Her guardian in Alaska has not been helpful with this."

A week later, the couple from Eagle River, the sisters in Arizona and Washington, and the woman living at the shelter had all become friends, exchanging heartfelt messages about their families and how this moment had touched them.

"Time spent with Virginia has pulled me out of my usual winter funk and has brought me great joy. I plan to start volunteering at Bean's," Fred wrote to Gallaway. "This is shaping up to be a great Christmas!"

On Tuesday, Fred picked up Cook and they did errands to get her ready for travel. Best of all for Cook's sisters, the five hours together allowed him to give an update on her condition.

Cook's bipolar disorder has included episodes of disruptive outbursts. Her sisters said she became unmanageable 10 years ago, resisting her daughter's care, and was kicked out of various assisted living situations.

"Today Virginia was 100 percent lucid, friendly, witty, interesting," Fred wrote. "At the end of the day she said, 'It's been fun hanging out with you.' The feeling was mutual. Virginia was not at all the person I expected. She was delightful. I am happy she is headed to a better life in a warmer climate and closer to people who care about her."

On Wednesday, the Ripps brought Cook home to Eagle River to deal with her belongings, retrieved from a storage unit, a clinic and the shelter.

Her health condition makes it tough to move or stand for long, so she sat while Fred and Mary sorted her belongings according to her directions — to keep, throw away, or donate to the shelter. Fred packed four boxes to ship.

On Thursday, Fred returned to flying for work. Mary helped Cook get $100 from her state guardian.

The first thing Cook wanted to do with her money was buy a meal at Kentucky Fried Chicken. The second thing was to go to a beauty college to get her hair and nails done.

Also on Thursday, a magistrate transferred guardianship to Gallaway, in Arizona. Cook's sister, Georgia Hankins, attending the hearing by telephone, made a statement about the Office of Public Advocacy, which had been legally responsible for Cook's care. She provided me with a transcript of what she said.

"Frankly, I'm angry, appalled, and outraged by her treatment — it is absolutely appalling. So I just want to make sure that the court understands the history here," Hankins said.

The magistrate told her the concerns were outside the scope of the hearing, she said.

Gov. Bill Walker's budget, released Dec. 15, states that the guardian office is failing its statutory and ethical obligations. Its staff has barely grown in a decade while adding dozens of wards every year.

State law requires guardians to meet their wards at least quarterly, but that doesn't happen.

"It has been many years since we've been able to do that. There simply is no time," said Chad Holt, director of OPA.

Walker's proposal would add $1 million to hire nine guardians and a youth advocate to the existing staff of 17, reducing caseloads from over 90 to about 60. National standards call for a maximum of 40.

That will be a step in the right direction, but OPA is only one part of the broken mental health system that creates the medieval scene at the shelter campus, where crowds of the disturbed and destitute huddle in the cold. Holt could not say how many state wards are homeless.

Fred and Mary Ripp wanted credit given to the shelter employees, not themselves.

"Wow, they've got their hands full. They need help," Mary said. "And I don't see a lot of our lawmakers. They need a reality check. I wish they'd go down there and see what it's like, and put somebody like Virginia in their car for a day."

On Christmas morning a shelter staffer got Cook up and ready and outfitted with luggage. The Ripps and their daughter Anna drove her to the airport, which was quiet on the holiday.

Fred had already contacted his friends on the flight crew to watch out for Cook on the journey to Seattle. After he contacted his boss, Alaska Airlines waived baggage fees for the flight.

Fred said Mary is the volunteer in the family. She sits with terminally ill hospital patients who don't have family in Alaska. But Mary said Fred is the one who always reaches out to help strangers. She said it always leads to making new friends.

They have tried to help their own family member on the streets of another city, struggling with mental health issues. Fred told Cook's sisters about that situation in an email.

"One always imagines the worst. Yours and Virginia's situation; her health, the cold, the danger, the distance .... was all magnitudes worse .... heartbreaking," he wrote.

"[My relative] has been helped out of tough spots by complete strangers," Fred wrote. "This seemed like a good way to repay them."

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