Foundation News | In the News

What can one person do? A lot!

By Shirley Stirling

August 7, 2023

via JOLT News

She lived her life to make a difference – and did! She literally crafted our local human services system over 50+ of her 85+ years. Now, a group of people are taking action to ensure her legacy lives on. Plaques and monuments are fine, but the members of the League of Women Voters, Thurston County (LWVTC), want to follow her lead and use the medium of giving.

Her name was Gladys Burns (1909-1994) and she cared about people, always looking to see what was needed and getting it done. She was a doer who influenced others to work for just causes. Her home was our home, Thurston County. She thought big and took action here, developing needed services. Not just once, not once in a while, but relentlessly for over 50 years. And now, almost 30 years after her death, those who knew her remember and seek to memorialize her legacy.

The get-together

Over 50 people met on Saturday hosted by Senator Karen Fraser, who served in the Washington State Senate for 24 years. The outdoor event, with coffee and light refreshments, was at Fraser’s home with the express purpose of remembering Gladys Burns and contributing to a new scholarship fund in her honor. Darlene Hein, president of the League of Women Voters of Thurston County (LWVTC), welcomed the guests and talked about Burns’ work. Burns was an active member of LWVTC for decades and members looked up to her. She served on the League’s Human Resources Committee. The South Puget Sound Community College (SPSCC) Foundation’s Director of Development Christine Hoffmann explained the process and progress on establishing the scholarship in partnership with the LWVTC.

An architect of social services

“Gladys started so many non-profits in Thurston County that it’s hard to fathom,” remarked John Halvorson, MSW, formerly the mayor of Lacey. “She would identify a social need, call for a “Day of Awareness” organized by Associated Ministries (now Interfaith Works) and rally dozens of citizens to take up a cause. She was an original member of the “Community Chest” now known as the United Way, mental health services, Crisis Clinic, child care center, family support services, and a group called Parents Anonymous for non-custodial abusive parents wanting to turn their lives around and re-connect with their children.”

Different hats

Her roles were many: organizer, planner, recruiter, fundraiser, lobbyist, crisis line worker, big-picture dreamer, Headstart teacher (working hard to include parents), Executive Director of United Good Neighbor (formerly Community Chest, now the United Way), President of the Washington State Mental Health Association, Washington Association for Social Welfare leader, President of the Girl Scout Council, life member and organizer, with her husband, of the Olympia Unitarian Fellowship, now the Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation. She did all this and much more.

A good place to start

Her first project in Olympia, in the 1940s, addressed mental health in Thurston County. At that time, no mental health services existed in the county, not even support for patients discharged from Western State Hospital. Burns worked for six years with people she recruited, to fundraise, put on plays, advocate for, and organize the local mental health center. That was just the beginning of her volunteer work with mental health.

Bringing out the best

She brought out the best in others. Her stated goal when she retired from United Good Neighbor was to “devote my energy to putting persons with time and talent to spare to work in worthwhile volunteer activities.”

She also brought out the best by personally helping neighbors and other people she knew, when she saw a need. One person said that Gladys surprised her with a loan when she was in dire economic straits. Later, Gladys refused repayment when she tried to pay her back, and, instead, urged her to “pay it forward” to someone else in need.

Led ‘astray’

“Yes,” Halvorson laughingly explained. “I was led ‘astray’ into a life of volunteering by Gladys Burns,” “I first met her and my other mentor, Abbott Gerald Desmond, of St. Martin’s College (now SMU) in 1972, during my first year living in Washington and my first six months working for the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) as a public assistance caseworker in the local Olympia office. They were both strong advocates for the poor and for increasing support for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the federal financial aid program administered by the State of Washington.”

Equity issues

She looked at the little picture, of individual needs and the big picture of societal equity.

“Gladys and Joe Dear and I, to a much lesser extent, were founders of People for Fair Taxes (PFFT) in 1976,” said Russell Lidman, Professor Emerita, Institute of Public Service, Seattle University. “Gladys was the magnet at the outset, then within a year, Joe took over the fundraising. PFFT existed for a handful of years. The state’s tax system did not change then, but the awareness of the unfairness of the tax system grew. Through this work with Gladys, Joe went on to do great work supporting the public in this state and nation.

Looking to see

“Gladys believed in opening windows for people. When she taught religious education to children, she put a big piece of paper on the wall in the windowless room and drew a large rectangle on it. She would ask, “If this were a real window, what could you see?” She had an amazing imagination and orientation toward the future. She pushed us to see the possibilities.” Drew Betz, Professor Emerita, Human Development, WSU Extension, former Olympia resident, and member of the Olympia Unitarian Universalist congregation.

The logging camps

Gladys was born in Idaho, and her father took her to the logging camps, as a part of his work. She told John Halvorson about a logger named Shorty who “would very patiently listen to her and answer all her questions about the equipment, what it was called, how it worked, etc. That’s where she learned the importance of listening. Also, he told stories about loggers who were injured or killed. There was no worker’s compensation, no welfare. If you lost a limb, you lost your job and income, maybe even your home. The unfairness of it all. This is where she got her passion for social justice and determination to help the poor.” For a bit of levity, he added, “To her mother’s chagrin, she said by age 9, ‘I had learned every swear word there was.’”


Gladys and her husband Bartlett Burns had two children, Roger and Carol, whom they raised in Olympia. Bartlett was an avid mountaineer and loved Mt. St. Helen’s, having climbed it 13 times before 1980. He was one of the Olympia YMCA directors who developed the boys' camp on Spirit Lake and, as the kids grew up, the family attended work parties to prepare the camp. Long after the death of both parents, circa 2005, Carol and Roger hiked to Spirit Lake and mingled their mother and father’s ashes with those of Mount St. Helens beneath the water.


She was appreciated during her life with a number of local recognitions and all the way to the Volunteer of the Year in Washington, DC, an annual award by the National Association of Social Workers, presented in 1981.  She was recognized by the Kiwanis, YWCA (lifetime achievement), United Way, and the Olympian newspaper. The Family Support Center’s Outreach Area was named in her honor, as were some volunteer awards, such as one presented annually for several years by the United Way. Several organizations pulled together at her death in tribute and now, once again, action is being taken to honor her, so that we remember her legacy.

Gladys Burns "Hope & Opportunity" Memorial Endowed Scholarship

The League of Women Voters encourages donations to fund a scholarship for SPSCC students in honor of Gladys Burns. The fund started with $3,000 donated by Burns at the end of her life; donations have now brought the total halfway to its goal. The LWV hopes for the community to continue adding to the “seed” and establish an endowment through a partnership with the South Puget Sound Community College Foundation. Once their $28,000 goal is achieved, a $1,000 annual scholarship will be offered in perpetuity.

What is an endowment-based scholarship?

An endowed scholarship is one based on an invested fund. The principal is invested by the Foundation Board’s Finance Committee which works with an investment firm to determine investments and monitor performance.

How to donate:

  • Online: click here. (select "Gifts in Memory of Gladys Burns" to ensure the money is allocated correctly.)
  • By phone: 360-596-5430.
  • By mail: SPSCC Foundation 2011 Mottman Rd. SW, Olympia, WA 98512 (Please note "In memory of Gladys Burns" to ensure the money is allocated to the correct fund.) Please contact Director of Development Christine Hoffmann at 360-596-5430 with any questions.