When they were children, Brenda Carlstrom and Bonnie Cable couldn’t have predicted the tight-knit team they would become. Many sisters fight like cats and dogs growing up, and Cable and Carlstrom are quick to point out they were no exception. But as adults, both had a passion for service, people and their hometown of Hoquiam, and were in a unique position to lift each other up to reach their goals.
Carlstrom is paralyzed from just below her shoulders and Cable is legally blind. Together, they advocate for those in need of home care, help the Hoquiam Elks, and plan the Loggers Playday Parade. This year it’s been renamed the Hoquiam Elks Grand Parade, and will be held Sept. 8.
“It’s a team effort,” Carlstrom said. “She’s my walkie — my legs, my hands — and I’m her eyes.”
Reading the chalkboard
When she was about 16, Cable realized she was starting to have trouble reading the chalkboard at school — a familiar warning sign to the nearsighted.
But when she went to the eye doctor, he couldn’t find anything wrong.
“I knew I couldn’t see the chalkboard anymore, but when I went to the doctor, he just said, ‘You’re faking, you just want glasses,’” she recalled.
Her timing could have been better: John Lennon was all the rage at the time so teens did, in fact, try to match his trademark glasses.
With no apparent medical issue, Cable found her own ways of dealing with her worsening vision. Counting steps is an important strategy to this day.
“Even carrying laundry at home, I’ll have to count or I’ll miss a step” on the stairs, she said. There has been a close call or two.
She memorizes routes, counts her steps, and finds her way just fine once she’s been somewhere. Cable and her family love to go to Mariners and Seahawks games, which is fine if they get their usual seats or she’s been there with someone once.
Before she knew what was wrong, she was even driving: She would listen to the person in front of her read off their eye exam when renewing her license, eventually simply memorizing the test.
“It was GOFPD forever until one year I went in and said those words and the lady said, ‘What are you reading?’” Cable said with a laugh.
When she was about 25, she finally found a doctor who had the dubious good luck of having a relative with Stargardt disease, a form of early-onset macular degeneration. He recognized the unusual ailment — it affects about one in 10,000 children in the U.S., and between 30,000 and 50,000 Americans overall, according to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation.
Stargardt usually begins to damage both eyes between the ages of 6 and 20, usually progresses slowly until the 20/40 vision level. After that, vision worsens quickly to 20/200 — legal blindness — and beyond.
Stargardt has a strong genetic component, although no one else in Cable’s family has it, she said. Glasses don’t help and there’s no cure or accepted treatment, although some are being tested. In Cable’s case, her vision is worsened even further by glaucoma.
Looking at Cable’s life, it hasn’t slowed her down. She’s raised three children — although no grandchildren yet, she complains — and volunteers much of her time with the Hoquiam Elks Lodge and the Lady Elks. She plans many of the children’s events, including the Easter egg hunt and Christmas activities.
“There’s a small handful of people who are the strongest volunteers and Bonnie is one of those. Bonnie is a very hard worker, and she’s a very good organizer, and we depend on her for the things that she does,” said Jim Parnell, the exalted ruler of the Hoquiam Elks. “As I have become more involved with the Elks … I have learned more and more about just what Bonnie does.”
At the Christmas party, where Parnell plays Santa, each child gets an individually selected and labeled present — something Parnell hasn’t seen anywhere else he’s played St. Nick.
“That’s the length that they go to to make sure that those kids have a memorable Christmas party,” he said.
Many of her activities are made easier by her teammate, Carlstrom. They often travel together, navigating the often tangled web of public transit sometimes across the state for different events and conferences.
Carlstrom reads out any portions of movies with subtitles for Cable — at this point it’s a deeply ingrained reflex.
“Sometimes I’m not even there and she’s reading,” Cable said.
Home care advocate
Carlstrom has been paralyzed for 37 years after breaking her neck in a diving accident.
“My fingers don’t really work,” she explained. “This one’s just decoration,” she says, pointing it out with a laugh.
Three years ago she got an electric wheel chair, which made things easier, but she was already going strong.
“Everything I did before my accident, I’ve done after my accident,” Carlstrom said. And then some.
A self-described “office nerd,” Carlstrom loves details and technical perfection, down to the angles of an award in a frame for the Loggers Playday Parade. She’s made herself into a repository of disability and home care resources for anyone who might need them. Sometimes on the bus she’ll be chatting with someone who complains of lack of access to care they need, and oftentimes Carlstrom is able to point them to where they can get it. She fields frequent calls from friends and acquaintances who encounter others who need her encyclopedic knowledge.
She was an instrumental part of creating the Home Care Quality Authority, a now defunct state agency for referrals for those who need home care, or consumers, and those who provide it. Washington state has more than 25,000 individual home care providers — those who just provide care to one consumer independently — and before the registry, they had no organized way to find other consumers.
The HCQA created a list with quality control mechanisms like background checks that were copied all over the country. The Legislature cut its funding last year and transferred some functions to other agencies.
Carlstrom is active with a variety of causes, including the Coastal Community Action Program and the Office of Civil Legal Aid, a legal assistance resource.
Home care issues have a special place in her heart because of the impact that care has had on her life. She needs assistance with a variety of day-to-day activities, including getting in and out of bed due to the extent of her paralysis.
“I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I didn’t have the in-home care I’ve had,” she said.
Until 2010 budget cuts eliminated the position, Carlstrom worked with Student Services for Washington State University, focusing on a program partnering with Grays Harbor College to train K-8 teachers. Now, she serves as lodge secretary for the Hoquiam Elks and on the Hoquiam City Council for Ward 5. Parnell said Carlstrom has used her experience and community contacts to help the Elks coordinate grants for community service efforts.
“I have been working with Brenda a lot this year. She works real hard at it, and it’s a big job. She’s stepping up to the plate and doing that really well,” Parnell said.
Carlstrom also speaks nationwide and locally to groups about disabilities, rights and issues and living well and having a positive attitude.
Loggers Playday Parade
About seven years ago, Al Flynn, the longtime organizer of the Loggers Playday Parade, stepped back from it due to health issues. Cable had been helping him the previous two years and stepped up to keep the parade, which has existed in various forms since 1935, going.
It didn’t take long to realize there was a lot to learn, from permitting to sending out applications to participants. It was fairly easy to start trimming the mailing list of people to whom the parade was sending applications.
“I’ve lived here 50 years, so I just went down the list and went, ‘Oh he’s dead, they’re closed,” and saved some paper and postage, she said.
Other things weren’t so natural. There wasn’t a how-to guide on setting up the parade, and there were some bumps. Seven years later, she still remembers Gerald Nelson, a Department of Transportation worker who saved the parade.
The permit to close the state highway on the old parade route needed to be done in April for the September parade. In June of Cable’s first year, someone asked if she’d gotten the permit — she had no idea it needed one.
“I called up in tears,” Cable remembers. Nelson calmed her down, explained the timeline of the permit, and got it squared away.
“He’s my savior,” she said.
There were other big administrative challenges involved, including the database of parade participants. Once Carlstrom realized the state of it, her inner “office nerd” wouldn’t allow Cable to handle it on her own.
Another challenge was getting people to stop throwing candy while part of the parade. There’s actually a state law against it, Cable and Carlstrom discovered, but they know firsthand how dangerous something as apparently harmless as candy thrown around log trucks can be.
There was a close call one of the first years Cable was involved with the parade. A parade entry was throwing candy, and the log truck driver behind them didn’t see the child run out in the path of the giant wheels until a woman in the crowd screamed for him to stop.
“I almost threw up,” Cable said. “My heart almost stopped.”
Other changes were instituted by the pair, like publicity forms for each entry that tells announcers during the parade more about the group. Other changes were procedural.
“Every year it’s gotten easier,” Cable said.
There’s a group of about 20 volunteers who make the parade happen. They pitch in on everything from organizing entries at the staging areas to setting up barriers.
“It’s a group effort now,” Carlstrom said.
The duo forms a well-tuned machine to lead the group, handling office issues with ease together that alone might have posed a challenge. For example, Cable helps Carlstrom organize the faxes and paperwork, while Carlstrom organizes the database of participants.
They still have their moments of conflict during the most stressful periods of the parade setup.
“When we turn the page of the calendar in August, we start apologizing to each other for what we’re going to say. We do get into it,” Cable said with a chuckle.
Carlstrom said her proudest moment working on the parade was two years ago, when the committee learned just weeks before the parade that the Simpson Avenue Bridge would be closed during the parade. A whirlwind re-routing effort was launched, a cooperative effort of volunteers, city and police staff.
It was no small task: Some streets were too narrow for the log trucks to turn, others had power lines or other obstructions in the way of taller entries like the pirate ships. Finding one that worked on so short a timeline was a minor miracle.
“I think that was showing everyone our community works well together,” Carlstrom said.
The new route actually had several advantages over the old from the committee’s perspective, not the least of which was going from nine or 10 staging areas to only one. The change hasn’t been without controversy, with some complaining that the new route doesn’t feature downtown or simply that the traditional route has been changed.
This year, the event committee declined to provide any funding for the parade, which usually costs about $6,500 for various permits and expenses. That has added fundraising to the lists of challenges of parade setup. They may not be able to make the usual donations to youth organizations who march in the parade.
For Carlstrom and Cable’s part, they have done their best to mitigate any issues caused by the new route, including announcing any sales or promotions held by downtown businesses during the parade. To them, the parade is about more than a route.
“It’s everyone’s day. It’s not the parade’s day, it’s not the event’s day, it’s the city of Hoquiam opening up and welcoming you in,” Cable said.
Last year, more than 400 people visited the Hoquiam Library during Loggers Playday, and others patronized businesses all over the city, Carlstrom said.
“This is our day to shine,” she said.
Loggers Playday events take place Saturday, Sept. 8. The day kicks off with a pancake feed hosted by the Rotary Club, vendors are open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the parade starts at noon. There are more than 100 entries and it usually runs about 2 1/2 hours. The ever-popular Loggers Show starts at 6 p.m. at Olympic Stadium, and is followed by fireworks.
Brionna Friedrich, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3933 or by email: email@example.com.