As Tobi Buckman prepared to go on her first disaster relief mission for the Red Cross, she told her anxious kids they too had an opportunity to help: Taking care of each other while she went to provide counseling to those devastated by flooding.
“The first time I went out on a disaster was 1993 and I had five kids at home,” she said, adding with a laugh, “My husband is very patient.”
Buckman is known for her work with the Red Cross on disasters ranging from the 1993 Midwest floods to 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy. She’s also been a longtime Aberdeen City Council member, a psychiatric nurse, a counselor for juvenile sex offenders, and mom to a blend of seven adopted and “home-made” kids.
“I believe we’re put on this earth not just for our own pleasure,” Buckman said. “I think it’s important that we do things. Helping others comes really naturally to me.”
Coming to the Harbor
The Midwest native, raised in Blaine, arrived in Aberdeen in 1973 with two kids from her first marriage in tow, Ty and Joelle. She was driven to the Harbor by the closure of Northern State Hospital in Sedro Woolley, where she had been a psychiatric nurse. Buckman became the first psychiatric nurse in Aberdeen, working at the now-defunct Evergreen Counseling Center.
From there, she shifted into long-term care at a nursing home, with a surprising benefit: She met her husband, Gary.
They were set up on a blind date by one of the other nurses, Buckman recalled.
“We went to a Parents Without Partners dance, and he had to tell them he was a parent when he wasn’t,” she said.
The U.S. Army veteran taught vocational education classes at Aberdeen High School for 29 years, but around town, he said, “I just go by ‘Tobi’s husband.’ ”
It was the second marriage for Tobi and the third for Gary, and soon they were talking about adding to their family.
Gary hadn’t planned on having kids of his own, and sat down with Tobi and her two kids to take a vote — hoping his explanation of how stinky and messy babies were might give him support from the youngsters.
“I got out-voted, three votes against me,” he said with a laugh.
But after baby Michelle, the Buckmans weren’t able to have more children of their own. It was important to Tobi that once the other kids were out on their own, Michelle wasn’t left as an only child, so the couple began looking at adoption.
“I talked to adoption agencies and when they heard we had children, they wouldn’t even talk to us,” she said.
Then a neighbor couple came to visit with their new baby, a little girl from Colombia.
An international family
In the late ’70s, international adoptions weren’t an everyday occurrence, and the visit opened up a new avenue to expand their family.
They adopted their first child, Tiana, at 15 months from Colombia.
“Then Tobi said, ‘You just can’t have one baby, you have to have the ages close,’ ” Gary remembers with a rueful laugh.
The family continued to expand and diversify, with Mark and Brianne coming from Korea, and Michael rounding out the list from the Philippines.
At one point, Gary remembers, “I said, ‘Jeez Tobi, I’m 55 years old.’ She said ‘Oh it will keep you young.’ … Then about the time she was 55 years old I said I suppose it’s about time we adopt another one. She said no.”
“I thought I was going to be 90 years old and want to adopt another baby,” Tobi said.
Neither Gary nor Tobi came from a big family, and Tobi said there wasn’t any plan behind a brood of seven.
“It makes no sense. I can remember when I had two kids and … a co-worker was having her fifth kid and I said, ‘Why would anybody have five, that makes no sense,’ ” she remembers, laughing. “It has enriched our lives.”
The adopted children had unique medical issues to contend with.
“We wanted to help kids who, here, could live pretty productive and normal lives, but in their home countries, they had no chance,” Buckman said.
The family sometimes drew stares around town, but mostly contended with curiosity rather than any negative feelings, Buckman said.
“People used to look. I can remember being at the mall, when the mall had stores in it, and I had Mark in the stroller and people would look at him and look up at me” with overtly perplexed expressions, she said. But “I never felt any problems from it.”
The rewards have far outweighed any challenges for the family. One particularly proud moment came from “home-made” daughter Michelle when the Buckmans were considering adopting another boy.
Tobi remembers a book of photos sitting out on a table, and noting in passing how difficult placement would be for one boy with a facial deformity.
Then Michelle called her back. “Come look at this cute little boy,” she told her mother.
“She saw this charming smile. So I looked at him through her eyes … she saw the kid,” Tobi said.
A few months later, they brought Michael home, and with surgery, his charming smile is all there is to notice.
“He’s an awesome young man,” Tobi said.
A diverse career
While her family grew at home, Tobi Buckman also expanded her professional world. She continued her education, earning a bachelor’s degree from Saint Martin’s University, a master’s from Pacific Lutheran University, and, at age 53, a doctorate from California Coastal University in psychology.
Buckman served as director of the county’s teen pregnancy program.
“Teenage girls were some of my favorite people. Teen pregnancy of course was a real issue, and it continues to be,” Buckman said. Over time, she realized she had qualms about the execution of that program.
“I began to have some moral issues with it. I believe that to make good choices you have to look at all your options,” she said, from abortion to adoption to parenting the child.
“We were supportive of them, which was great, we took them to doctor’s appointments, which was great, but we wrapped them in this cocoon of support … and then they were all on their own,” Buckman said. The sense of support that wouldn’t be there when the real work of parenting began, and that may have influenced some of the young mothers’ decisions to keep their babies.
“How dare we be shocked when a 15-year-old struggles,” she said.
Buckman served for a time as the Grays Harbor County designated mental health professional, which had her working in crisis intervention. It was a very rewarding specialty in spite of the emotional challenges, because she could take someone on the point of ending their life, help them work out a plan for treatment and see their whole outlook improve.
“I found that I was pretty good at crisis intervention because I think fast and I really care about people, and I think that comes across,” Buckman said.
She moved on to her own practice, providing a variety of therapy but focusing in large part on rehabilitating young sex offenders. Juvenile sex offenders made up about half of her practice for 16 years, she said, her effort toward preventing terrible crimes.
“By treating the offender and helping them learn not to do that, that was my way of doing prevention,” Buckman said.
It was a tough role, partly because of the inside knowledge she accumulated of crimes against women and children, and partly because of the lack of direct feedback. “You don’t see much return for your work. It’s hard to know if you’re really making a difference,” she said.
One place Buckman was part of something that made a difference was the Aberdeen City Council. She served for 15 years on the 12-person body.
“I enjoyed that. I probably got out at a good time. It’s really hard now, really hard choices,” she said, referring to tough budget situations that have faced the city since she left in 2003.
Some have lobbied for a smaller council for the city, but Buckman said the size of the group wasn’t an obstacle to meaningful action.
“If you can’t persuade 11 people that that’s a reasonable thing, then probably that law doesn’t need to be changed. We shouldn’t change and add laws lightly,” she said.
Buckman is still proud of her part in bringing Stafford Creek Corrections Center to the area. Although the facility doesn’t replace the family-wage jobs in the timber industry that have been lost, she said it softened the blow to some degree.
“It would be sad to see where Aberdeen would be now if we didn’t have those jobs. I’m glad to be a part of that,” Buckman said.
With the budget struggles not likely to let up any time soon, Buckman said city councils today need to focus more than ever on their legal responsibilities, like police and fire, even if that results in tough cuts to important programs.
“We really have to look at what’s mandated services. If people want some of the things that aren’t mandated, they have to be willing to pay more taxes.”
Taking on disasters
After Hurricane Andrew hit the Gulf Coast in 1992, the Red Cross began to include mental health in its disaster relief programs.
“They recognized that we had a role to play,” Buckman said. “I was in the very first class trained by the national folks at the Red Cross. … I feel blessed to get to do that.”
“You name it, any of them that have come up in the last 20 years, Tobi’s been there,” Gary said with a proud grin. “I think it’s great. We have kind of a unique marriage in that I’ve never said no to her and she’s never said no to me.”
She works with people who have lost homes, loved ones, sometimes their entire community support structure. The phases of grief are predictable and heart-wrenching: Gratitude to be alive, followed by a slow realization of the enormity of what they’ve lost and how much work it will take to rebuild it. Buckman helps them work through their emotions and form plans for their recovery, much like other crisis intervention she’s done.
“What I do is give them hope and give them help, from me and from whoever else may be available,” she said. “If I go in knowing how to help, then it’s not nearly as stressful as people imagine.”
Buckman closed her practice in 2009, but retirement hasn’t been much of a break.
“I retired, but I can’t sit and watch TV. I have to do something,” she said.
Her nine grandchildren, four dogs and rental properties provide plenty to do, along with her work in disaster relief. That’s not likely to get off the agenda any time soon.
Buckman is a regular guest on KBKW talk radio, and has recently engaged in the gun-control debate. Her long experience in the mental health field gives her unique perspective.
“There’s not one simple answer,” Buckman said. “I do think we need to have a discussion, an open-minded discussion, on if there’s a need for assault weapons and the clips that have so many bullets.”
She quickly notes she’s a gun owner herself, and the role of mental health in preventing mass shootings can’t be ignored. Since the ’70s, mental health law has moved toward the least restrictive management of the mentally ill possible. For some, that can be a good thing, but for those who are potentially dangerous, it’s next to impossible to address their issues without their consent unless they’re imminently threatening people, she explained.
“I’m not sure that we’ve done the mentally ill a favor,” Buckman said. “They really need to look at some of the details of the mental health law.”
It’s clear the impact Buckman has had on her children: Many are highly educated and have chosen public service in various forms, from education to medical care to military service. Asked what she would like for them or others to take away from her unconventional life of service, Buckman pauses. Ultimately, the key to it all is optimism, she said.
“Honest to goodness, when I fall and break my leg, after ouch, it’s, ‘I’m so lucky I didn’t break both of them,’ Buckman said. “Being able to find the silver lining in the black cloud makes life easier.”
Brionna Friedrich, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3933, or by email: email@example.com