Larry LaRue

Young man returns to Tacoma area with a ‘heart to serve’ shared all over America

Josh Bellinghausen used to tell his family he wanted to be the Most Interesting Man in the World. Then he went to high school.

As he grew up on the Tacoma-Federal Way line, Josh went to Todd Beamer High School in Federal Way (Class of 2007) and kept his life close to the vest.

“We didn’t always know when he was doing something special,” said his mother, Deborah Bellinghausen. “Josh ran the school store for awhile, then was the anchor of school’s television broadcast — and the only way we’d find out would be a neighbor or something.

“He wouldn’t tell us. Josh likes to fly under radar.”

As a freshman at the University of Washington, Josh was a political science major who told his father, King County firefighter Jeff Bellinghausen, he wasn’t certain what he was going to do beyond college.

An accident changed all their lives.

Whitney Bellinghausen, Josh’s sister and his parents’ only other child, was in a devastating 2008 auto accident on a rural road in Oregon, where she was attending Western Oregon University.

“My parents called me on their way to the hospital, then picked me up. I spent the night there,” Josh said.

Whitney’s injuries were horrific, but she stabilized, and her condition began a slow improvement.

“I always believed she’d get better,” Josh said. “I took a photo of her to share with her as we’d document her recovery.”

Twenty days after the accident, Whitney died of a staph infection.

She was 20. Josh was 19.

“Losing Whitney gave him heart to help others,” Deborah said. “It helped shape him, helped make him the man he is today.”

Today, Josh is in the final weeks of a 10-month stretch with the Americorps program — his second tour with the group in the past three years. He signed up right out of college and was part of the FEMA team assisting New York after Hurricane Sandy.

“Right out of school, he looked at teaching English in South America, at going to Australia,” father Jeff said. “Josh was looking for adventure, and he had a heart for helping people. FEMA seemed like a fit.”

The Americorps gig paid a small living stipend and, after 10 months, put $5,500 toward Josh’s college debts.

There was a far bigger payoff, however.

Stationed in St. Louis, Josh met another Americorps volunteer, a young woman named Alex. When their 10-month obligation ended, they stayed together in St. Louis.

“We wanted to decompress a little, figure out what to do next,” he said. “I worked for Anheuser-Busch as a bartender. I had a degree and I was bartending? I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t going to be forever.”

While in St. Louis, Josh won an award: the hardest-working employee at Anheuser-Busch.

“Naturally, he didn’t tell us about it,” his mom said. “We had to hear it from Alex.”

Josh and Alex decided that while their Americorps service would look good on a résumé, they lacked evidence of leadership or management skills. Where could they get those and do what each loved?

“We volunteered for the 10-month Americorps team leader program,” Joshua said. “I’ve had a team of the same nine people the whole time, so there have been 10 of us in a passenger van and we’ll have 20,000 miles on it by the end. Alex led another team.”

In mid-May, he will return to Tacoma with Alex. She wants to get into nonprofit work.

And Josh? He plans to follow his father and go into fire fighting.

“Josh has already taken a test in King County and will be applying from Seattle to Tacoma,” Jeff said. “Any father would be proud to have his son take up what he did for a living. I’m honored.”

Josh Bellinghausen may be following more than his father. His sister’s life — and her death — have been significant factors.

“I wouldn’t say losing her changed my whole life, but yes, it influenced me and still does,” he said.

Now 26, he isn’t concerned about being the most interesting man on earth. That isn’t good enough anymore. Whitney was such an inspiration that a Facebook page in her honor, called For Whitney, has 171 members and is still frequently used.

“She loved everybody, would do anything for anyone,” Josh said. “I’d like to think I’m a little like her.”