Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: Though 33 years apart, Graham roommates find friendship together

Wayne Cooke , 84, shares his Graham home with Mandy Riffle, right, while holding his dog, Gizmo on Tuesday . Cooke, 84, went to Shared Housing Services last year and asked for someone to share his double-wide mobile home, and they sent Mandy . She pays low rent , and he gets a part time caretaker.
Wayne Cooke , 84, shares his Graham home with Mandy Riffle, right, while holding his dog, Gizmo on Tuesday . Cooke, 84, went to Shared Housing Services last year and asked for someone to share his double-wide mobile home, and they sent Mandy . She pays low rent , and he gets a part time caretaker. Staff photographer

Mark Merrill is a matchmaker of sorts, the executive director of a Tacoma nonprofit that tries to put people together under one roof.

“The need is tremendous, those who need a roof over their heads and those who live alone and may need a little help,” Merrill said. “It’s 10-1 home-seekers to homeowners.”

The organization is called Shared Housing Services. It has programs that puts families in a home for up to 24 months, gets the parents job training and jobs, then moves them along. It has a youth program for homeless kids who need a safe place to stay, a mentor who might help them, and rules about school and a job.

And then there’s the simplest SHS match: Someone who needs somewhere to live and someone willing to share their home.

It doesn’t always work. Some new sets of roommates don’t last.

“There are compelling stories, though,” Merrill said.

Wayne Cooke and Mandy Riffle, for instance.

Cooke, 84, lost his wife in 2012. The double-wide mobile home he owns on a full acre in Graham was slowly getting away from him. Macular degeneration was stealing his vision, and he needed someone to drive for him when he did leave his house.

He has a dog, Gizmo.

“I don’t even remember how I heard about the program, but I went down and filled out the paperwork,” Cooke said.

The paperwork includes a background check, a list of likes and dislikes, and interviews.

Riffle, 51, was rooming with a girlfriend after a bad relationship and more than her share of tough times. She’d dealt with bipolar disorder, gotten as heavy as 400 pounds, then lost 270 of that.

She has a dog, Ziggy.

Riffle was first matched with a 96-year-old woman. The relationship worked well until, months after Riffle moved in, the older woman died.

SHS then set up a meeting with Cooke.

“The first thing that happened was, our dogs immediately started playing together,” Cooke said. “While they played, we asked one another questions.”

Cooke showed her his backyard, which once held a big garden. Riffle loved working outdoors in the earth.

Cooke didn’t always eat prepared meals, grabbing something quick and simple while eating alone. Riffle loved cooking.

Cooke was afraid that, in coming years, he might need caretaking. Riffle had no problem with the possibility.

She moved in with Cooke last October. She smokes, but agreed to do it only outside.

“I don’t know what I’d do without her,” Cooke said this week. “Mandy has planted vegetables and flowers. Her dog is lazy, mine is too energetic, so they match up well. We can talk about anything and everything, and we do.”

Riffle initially paid $300 a month for her share of the double-wide. That’s now been reduced to $200.

“She buys most of the groceries, so it only seemed right,” Cooke said.

Riffle said she immediately loved the place, the privacy it offered, the beauty of such a wonderful yard.

That she would develop a close relationship with the owner surprised her.

“We’re like best friends,” Riffle said. “I admire and respect Wayne. I’m very protective of him, and he’s a kind, sweet man who’s sharp and very bright.”

Merrill said SHS, which began in 1991, loves hearing such success stories.

“In 2014, all our programs together touched 800 people,” he said.

Merrill and his wife, Sue, owned a Proctor wine bar, Pour at Four, until selling it last November. They’d provided wine for a few SHS events, and Merrill was asked to be part of the search committee for a new executive director.

“At the 11th hour, I resigned from the committee, went through the interview process and ‘Voila!’” Merrill said.

“What makes us happiest is stories like that of Mandy and Wayne. We helped two populations, a gentleman in his 80s who needed a little help and a woman in her 50s who needed low-income housing.”

There are so many matches to be made, so many families and young homeless to be helped, that it can be intimidating — almost overwhelming, Merrill said.

“Then you get the flip side, like we had on July 31. A woman who’d come to us at 18, who we’d helped find a home and a mentor, changed her life and graduated from high school,” Merrill said. “She packed up and moved to Pullman and will be going to WSU this fall. She’s now 20.

“I tell you, we are Tacoma’s greatest secret.”

To learn more

For more information about Shared Housing Services, visit its website: http://www.sharedhousingservices.org/

The organization can be reached by telephone at (253) 272-1532.

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