The Giraffe Project honors those who stick their necks out

By Jack Broom
Seattle Times staff reporter

LANGLEY, Whidbey Island 7/1/02 - On one wall, blue pushpins perforate a map of the United States, forming clusters around Seattle and other major cities. On another wall, more pins spread across a map of the world, piercing 25 countries.

Targets? Destinations? Focal points for some covert operation?

No. They're Giraffes, a title bestowed by an international organization based in this island village known more for its shops, galleries, country inns and views across Saratoga Passage.

Spotlighting heroes and encouraging new ones is the work of The Giraffe Project, so named because it honors people who stick their necks out for the common good.

Simple good deeds don't make a Giraffe. Candidates must be taking a risk, whether that be facing professional ostracism, public ridicule, physical harm, arrest for nonviolent protest or expending vast amounts of personal time and resources.

An Arizona woman went deep into debt to start a service helping low-income families learn about child safety and nutrition. An Ohio minister was expelled by his church but later reinstated for his involvement in civil-rights and antiwar demonstrations.


It's been 20 years since writer Ann Medlock and a group of supporters sat around a New York living room and talked about keeping alive the "Giraffe" concept started by the defunct Quest magazine.

"It was too good an idea to die," Med-lock recalls. In 1985, the operation moved here, largely to save money and because of Medlock's desire to operate from a rural location not far from a major city.

The nonprofit organization now has 1,350 members, six paid staffers and has honored nearly 1,000 Giraffes. It has developed several spinoff projects, including a school curriculum to help youngsters identify, acknowledge and emulate heroes in their communities.

To find out more:

The Giraffe Project: 360-221-7989.

"It's beyond my wildest dreams, and it's nowhere near as big as I want it to be," said Medlock, 69, the project's founder and creative director, whose goal is to turn passive consumers into active citizens.

Shared ideals

Even in the early days, when Medlock used her grocery money to pay $125 to get the project a post-office box, she was certain she was on the right track.

Among her early allies was John Graham, a disillusioned State Department diplomat she recalls as "the skinny guy at the U.N."

In 1982, the two married and Graham, 59, is now the organization's president. He spends much of his time on the road, speaking about the project.

Graham traces his need to work for positive change to a 1980 day in which he nearly died on a lifeboat in the North Pacific. He had been hired as a lecturer on the cruise ship Prinsendam, but the vessel became engulfed in fire 140 miles off Southeast Alaska, forcing its crew and passengers into lifeboats.

As hope of being rescued faded in the gathering darkness and growing storm, Graham turned his anger toward God, demanding to know why he should die, when he had such a strong sense that he could help improve the world.

Out of the storm he sensed an answer, challenging him to actually do something with his life or lose it. "The fact is," Graham said, "I had a head full of ideals, but I hadn't really done anything."

The moment he made a firm commitment to turn from theory to action, Graham recalls, a Coast Guard cutter appeared through the waves.

Hope out of despair

Times of personal crisis can be opportunities for change and new priorities, a fact reflected in some of the Giraffe commendations. An Alabama man campaigned for greater workplace safety after his 19-year-old son died in a corn silo. A California woman helped jail inmates start an organic garden after she credited organic food with helping her survive a life-threatening illness.

Washington state has produced 85 Giraffes. Well-known names include Patrinell Wright, director of Seattle's Total Experience Gospel Choir; Billy Frank Jr., chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission; and Retired Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer, former chief nurse of the Washington National Guard who lost her job because she was a lesbian but successfully fought to regain it.

Last month, Susan Michaels and Mark Steinway of Snohomish County were added for operating Pasado's Safe Haven, a Sultan area shelter for abused and neglected animals.

For The Giraffe Project, identifying heroes comes with a risk of its own. "You really don't have any guarantee that people are going to stay good and not do something hideously embarrassing later," Medlock said.

The case of a Midwest man makes the point. He was named a Giraffe after being honored statewide for his apparent generosity in adopting a large number of children. "He turned out to be a child molester," Medlock said. "Now I've gotten very careful about stories of people working with kids. You need to check those out very carefully."

Graham said he feels fortunate that only about three or four Giraffes have been dropped from the organization's list.

A broader mission

The events of Sept. 11 refocused America's attention on heroes and heightened interest in the project's curriculum, purchased by schools in all 50 states. But Graham said the opportunity for significant change may be lost unless there's an effort to "get people to be active citizens, which means questioning some of the things that aren't working in this country."

Giraffe commendations don't come with money, but the recognition has helped some recipients land grants or donations. And, says Medlock, the commendations encourage news media to highlight people who are creating solutions, rather than problems.

The project's $400,000 annual budget flows in from a mix of sources: foundations, donors, members, sales of the curriculum and a small amount from sales of "Giraffenalia" T-shirts, mugs and other items with the project's red giraffe logo.

New crusaders

This is a time of transition at The Giraffe Project. Early this month, the title of executive director passed from Graham to Keith Mack, 46, a Wisconsin native who's worked for the project since early last year. Graham is on the road for speaking engagements much of the time, while Mack has been running the day-to-day operations.

Medlock said nothing delights her more than seeing new people join the effort and take its cause as their own.

"Everybody should know about it," she said. "I think 'giraffe' should become a verb. ... When you hit a public issue that needs solving, 'giraffe' it."

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