Color this family beautiful

SHANE RICHARD BELL/Press The Washington family enjoys homemade chicken noodle soup at their home in Coeur d'Alene. From left: Kynzie, Mihret, Greg, Phebe, Jaxson and Maara.

The Washington family enjoys homemade chicken noodle soup at their home in Coeur d’Alene. From left: Kynzie, Mihret, Greg, Phebe, Jaxson and Maara.

By Shane Richard Bell

Staff writer/Coeur d’Alene Press Sunday edition

Mihret munches her third brownie after finishing a big bowl of homemade chicken noodle soup while pointing to pictures of her homeland. She talks about the sun, the lush plants, the fertile fields.

“Our houses are different, you see,” said the 6-year-old. “But we have lions in Africa.”

The pictures are the beginning of a story about fraternal twin sisters, Mihret Elise Kuma Washington and Maara Elizabeth Kuma Washington, and how they were adopted from Wolayta, Ethiopia, by two Americans, Greg and Phebe Washington of Coeur d’Alene, when the girls were 6 months old in 2006.

Mihret and Maara’s mother, Abebech, was in labor for four days. Dr. Duane Anderson and Jackie Anderson of Coeur d’Alene were working at Soto Christian Hospital at the time of the birth. Six days after the birth, the twins’ mother, Abebech, died. Their father, who’d spent all of his money on his wife’s medical care, couldn’t even afford to give his deceased wife a proper burial.

Their grandmother held the twins as she grieved the loss of her daughter.

Several hospital staff told the Andersons that the father could not afford milk for his daughters, and that if he took them home to his farm, malnutrition would likely kill them. The Andersons were temporarily entrusted with caring for Mihret and Maara.

The story reached Coeur d’Alene through a friend of the Washingtons whose daughter is married to Duane and Jackie Anderson’s son. After hearing the story, Greg and Phebe, who were in the process of adopting internationally, looked into adopting Mihret and Maara.

Six months later, they were in Ethiopia.

“When we were in Ethiopia, oh man, here I was, a white man with braces carrying a baby in a Moby wrap everywhere we went,” Greg said. “The Ethiopians were laughing out loud at us everywhere we went.”

The Washington family has stood out ever since — in Ethiopia, in North Idaho, wherever.

“When you’re all the same race, it’s easier to blend in,” said Greg, 42. “But when we walk in, we’ve got red hair, brown hair, white skin, and black skin. So we stand out big time.”

Greg and Phebe never envisioned this kind of family growing up on the banks of the Clark Fork River in Missoula, Mont.

Meeting for the first time at Big Sky High School in 1984, Greg and Phebe were soon smitten. Greg was especially excited when Phebe accepted his invitation to his high school prom, even though she’d graduated high school and was then a college student. “Yeah, it was a little awkward, but Greg’s still proud about that,” said Phebe. “I was the man,” quipped Greg.

They dated for eight years and then married. Greg moved to Coeur d’Alene for a business internship. A year later Phebe arrived. They had their first child, Kynzie, now 14.

“After Kynzie, though, we were struggling getting pregnant,” said Greg. “We’re pretty open about it. We couldn’t have another child traditionally.”

The couple tried in vitro technology and got pregnant with their second child, Jaxson, 9.

“It worked with Jaxson so we thought, ‘Oh wow, this is going to work great,” said Phebe, 45. So they tried again. Three attempts later, they decided to adopt.

“Our family is so diverse,” Greg said. “It’s something neither one of us envisioned or planned for ourselves. It never occurred to us that we’d be a multi-racial family, or that two kids from Montana would go to Ethiopia to adopt two children of their own, or that we couldn’t have babies the conventional way. And we never thought about having a child with special needs.”

Maara Washington has autism.

“We knew something wasn’t developing normally with Maara when we first adopted her,” Phebe said. “She’d just sit there. When we would lay her down, she would just lie there.”

When Greg and Phebe were filling out adoption questionnaires, they answered “no” to adopting a child with neurological or mental disorders.

“At the time we just didn’t feel like we were equipped to deal with that,” Phebe said. “But God gave us Maara who has autism and has enriched us because of it in so many ways.”

“What has she taught us?” asks Phebe. “She has taught our family compassion and grace, which is her name. Maara means ‘grace’ in Amharic, and Mihret means ‘mercy.’ Those are the names the Andersons gave the girls, including their second middle name, which is actually their birth father’s name. It’s an Ethiopian tradition out of respect for the birth father that we wanted to keep, so we blended their American-Ethiopian names all together.”

Greg sees Maara as his wife does.

“One of the reasons God gave us Maara is because our family is supposed to be one of those families that creates awareness about autism. They’re not trying to impress; their love is unconditional. So it’s not scary to us anymore.”

Unlike other mental or neurological disorders that are more visibly noticeable, autism is harder for others to discern, Phebe said.

“When your child is bouncing around and making noise at a restaurant, people automatically assume that you’re a poor parent,” said Phebe. “They sometimes stare and give you dirty looks. They don’t see what Maara is going through.”

But Greg and Phebe know Maara is changing how others view her, and view autism.

“She’s impacted our family and she’s impacted the community already so much,” said Greg.

SHANE RICHARD BELL/Press Maara, left, plays with Mihret in between playing with their cat and making animal noises.

Maara, left, plays with Mihret in between playing with their cat and making animal noises.

Suddenly Mihret, in the middle of rocking back and forth on a stool, falls off and lands on the dining room floor, her head making a loud thud.

“Mihret, Mihret,” calls Maara. “Oh poor, Mihret, are you OK? Are you OK, Mihret? Mama, is Mihret OK?”

Phebe picks up Mihret and carries her over to the couch where she cradles and comforts her daughter.

Other than a possible minor bruise, Mihret is fine; nothing more than a childhood mishap.

“They’re very connected with each other,” said Phebe.

“We like to cuddle when no one is watching,” chimed Mihret.

When Maara first started pre-school, she didn’t interact or play with other children.

“Mihret would make her. She’d stage a tea party and be like, ‘Maara, sit. Drink tea.’ So she was the perfect peer model for Maara. She’d tell her what she was supposed to do,” said Phebe.

Mihret was recently awarded student of the month at Dalton Elementary.

“One of the reasons why her teacher chose her is because there is a little boy she goes to school with who has autism in her class. Mihret helps this little boy out a lot, with many of the everyday things. The teacher told her she doesn’t always have to be the one who helps the boy out.

“Mihret replied, ‘Oh, that’s OK. My twin is an autism girl so I speak her language.’”

The Washington family lives like many other North Idaho families.

They pray before every meal, simple and humble words. They have two cats. They enjoy the outdoors. They live in a neighborhood, surrounded by dozens of other families. The siblings sometimes fight, voices sometimes rise, and tears are sometimes shed, but a solution is always found.

Every Friday night they pick up a pizza, rent a movie, and enjoy Phebe’s homemade caramel corn.

Every Sunday morning the family attends Coeur d’Alene Bible Church, where they’ve been worshipping for almost 20 years, and where Greg plays guitar every other week and occasionally sings on the worship team.

“I go early, kiss my wife goodbye, and then see them all roll in a couple hours later,” said Greg.

Every Monday morning Greg gets up to work as a Realtor for Windermere Coeur d’Alene Realty. Phebe attends to everything else.

“She doesn’t work outside of the home but she works very hard at taking care of all of us,” said Greg. “I owe her a lot of money; she hasn’t been collecting a salary for a while.”

Throughout the week their kids participate in a dizzying gamut of activities.

Jaxson, a third grader, claims “to be good at everything,” taking particular interest in reading, science, and social studies, as well as after-school activities, including climbing trees and taking care of his Beta fish, Dragon. One day he wants to be a Realtor and Ironman, just like his dad. He also wants to be a football player and learn a new profession every year.

The eldest, Kynzie, is in driver’s training and is involved with Christian Youth Theater as an actress and stage manager. She’s corralled the entire family into helping at CYT. Jaxson acts. Maara and Mihret take theater classes. Phebe and Greg volunteer.

Most people accept this North Idaho family.

“With the history of North Idaho and the Aryans, it’s always bothered me,” said Phebe. “But it never really hit home until about a year and a half ago when the Aryans were protesting the Mexican food stands and I had Maara and Mihret in the car as I was going by and could see the sign: ‘Honk if you want to keep Idaho white.’”

Phebe could feel her face begin to burn, blood rushing to her cheeks.

“I had anxiety. My heart was pounding. I don’t know if they could have done anything to us, but you don’t know,” she said.

“We know racism will happen, but we just hope we can react appropriately,” said Greg. “But most people go out of their way to make sure we know that this is not what our community is about.”

Phebe also recognizes both sides. “I appreciate the welcoming and graciousness the community has extended to us,” she said.

Mihret finishes looking at the twins’ photo album — for a moment.

“And that’s me,” she said, again opening the book to pages covered in glossy images and colorful paper. “And that is my birth grandma. This is my mother. This is my birth dad. And this is me and this is Maara. She’s sleeping. We’re zero in this picture.”

Greg and Phebe have two trips planned, the first to Disneyland and the second to Ethiopia. They’re waiting for the girls to turn 10, though, four years from now.

“We’d like to take a big trip to Ethiopia, and take the whole family,” said Greg. “We’re going to find their dad and the twins’ brothers and sisters. We’re going to find the family.”

SHANE RICHARD BELL/Press Six-year-old Mihret shows her brother, Jaxson, 9, pictures of Mihret and her twin sister, Maara, before they were adopted from Ethiopia in 2006. "This is me sleeping on a pillow," said Mihret. "And this is me smiling and making funny faces. We were very cute."

Six-year-old Mihret shows her brother, Jaxson, 9, pictures of Mihret and her twin sister, Maara, before they were adopted from Ethiopia in 2006. “This is me sleeping on a pillow,” said Mihret. “And this is me smiling and making funny faces. We were very cute.”

‘You must have a great mother’

By Shane Richard Bell

Staff writer/Coeur d’Alene Press/Family Publication

“Happy,” a feature documentary exploring what makes people happy globally, cited deep relationships with family and friends as the No. 1 contributor to a person’s happiness.

The second contributor to one’s happiness is derived from giving, volunteering and charitable works, according to the documentary.

Interestingly both of these contributors significantly shape the North Idaho family.

Last September we introduced our first Family publication dedicated to defining what the North Idaho family is- its framework, design, and color- through your voices.

Our goal then and now is to unfurl what family means to you.

That’s what we want to know. That’s our utmost goal.

For this issue we’re hearing from local author, radio commentator and co-pastor Raydeane Owens on what her family authentically means to her through her poem titled, “This is Family.”

Well-known columnist and radio presence Kerri Thoreson hones in on the changing roles of grandparents to grandchildren through the generations in her article as a baby boomer, grandmother herself.

Freelancer and health and nutrition extraordinaire S. Michal Bennett writes on how healthier habits create healthier families, and she’s included a stellar recipe for smoothies

And lastly, NIC student Duncan Menzies shares a life-changing experience he had with a homeless woman under a bridge in Portland. He told The Press it was one of the most sincere moments he’s ever shared with someone, like a family member you’ve never met before but absolutely love. The woman with whom he shared this experience repeatedly told him “how great of a mother he must have had.”

And that is why we know family is important to you.


How values shape Edwards Smith Construction

Photo courtesy of Edwards Smith Construction

Photo courtesy of Edwards Smith Construction

By Shane Richard Bell

Staff writer/Coeur d’Alene Press


Integrity is the mortar between the stones of Edwards Smith Construction’s foundation, a company that has dedicated itself to the service of others for more than 20 years. Jim Edwards started building homes in North Idaho in 1983 and formed Edwards Construction in 1994; Andy Smith joined the company in 1997 and the two formed a partnership in 2008 as Edwards Smith Construction LLC.

The main goal for Andy Smith and Jim Edwards, principals of Edwards Smith Construction, is to first understand what clients value before presenting the options available to them. That understanding comes from talking to clients about their vision, tastes, values and budget.

Edwards and Smith pride themselves and their business on funneling the knowledge of a client’s needs into the very substance that results in pride of ownership, whether that is a remodel, a commercial project, or a high-end luxury home on Lake Coeur d’Alene.

“We align a client’s goals with their values,” said Smith. “And clients have a lot of goals – a home where they can feel safe with their family and know the roof is not going to leak, a home that is going to perform in North Idaho’s climate, a home that is going to hold its value and look good. We are building homes that will stand the test of time. The attention given to the core structure, mechanical systems and water management should always be filtered through this philosophy.”

“And to us, every project is an art form, balanced by the harmonious communication between builder, designer and client,” said Smith.

Before any blueprint of a home is rendered or a foundation is poured, Edwards Smith Construction has a proven process through which a client clearly defines the conditions on which a project is built.

“There are thousands of options. Our job is to understand what makes you tick, what makes you excited, whether that’s a countertop, a style, a color palate or textures. That is the service we provide,” said Smith.

It begins with a conversation.

Edwards and Smith offer a process where a vision and plan are forged, and includes a signature tour of completed projects.  “We want people to see for themselves the kind of quality, detailed craftsmanship and precision with which every project is executed,” said Edwards.

“Clients need to see and feel the difference in a home built with attention to detail to understand why our approach is better than the standard in the industry,” adds Smith.

“We serve our clients,” said Smith. “If you do everything right from the beginning, you put your clients first and put yourself and profits second, everyone will succeed. Through referrals your business will grow, and you’ll be rewarded.”

“Our promise is a passion for perfection,” seconds Edwards.

Unfortunately many builders make decisions through the filter of money, says Smith. “For us, decisions are filtered through what is best for the client first, what is best for the structure second, and third, what is best for the company. That is the bottom line.”

To ensure that process comes to fruition, Edwards Smith Construction implements a technique called “enhanced value engineering,” which they define as a combination of technical expertise, plus experience, which will develop the best economy for a particular function. “We don’t just build the project ‘per plan’ as most do,” said Edwards. “Our team is on a continual search to find the best value in the process of achieving our client’s highest goals and maintaining the integrity of the design.”

Clients shape Edwards Smith Construction’s reputation.

“Prospective clients are encouraged to call us any time for client recommendations,” said Smith. “We can readily provide those for you.”

Client Cheryl Shields is grateful for the people of Edwards Smith Construction who made her dream home on Sanders Beach a reality. “The craftsmanship of your team is unequivocal and the finest we have ever seen anywhere. We are so proud of our home and honored to have had you build it for us,” said Shields. “In our opinion, they are the finest builders around.”

Smith is quick to add that it’s a team effort. “It’s a huge team. We can’t do it all by ourselves, and the day we think we can is the day we need to get out of the business. It’s absolutely a team approach. Our job is to coordinate caring people with high-level skills to put together a piece of functional art reflective of the client’s goals.”

Smith says he can spot immediately if a home was built with care and craftsmanship or not.

“You can feel it. There is an absolute difference in the feeling of the home,” said Smith. “Our homes feel the way they do because the goals of the team – client, designer, builder and tradesmen – are aligned with the client’s values. We experience the journey with you every step of the way, from the first meeting to the moment we hand you the keys to your dream home.”

Photo courtesy of Edwards Smith Construction

Photo courtesy of Edwards Smith Construction

Photo courtesy of Edwards Smith Construction

Photo courtesy of Edwards Smith Construction


Kids being kids

Unplug and Be Outside program gets children off the couch

Garret Elder, 10, positions himself between the ball and other players during a game of broom hockey Tuesday at Frontier Ice Arena in Coeur d'Alene.

Garret Elder, 10, positions himself between the ball and other players during a game of broom hockey Tuesday at Frontier Ice Arena in Coeur d’Alene.

By SHANE RICHARD BELL/Staff writer/Coeur d’Alene Press

Instead of playing a golf video game, kids are learning the sport on a golf course. Instead of playing tennis on the Wii in a dark living room, kids are running across an open court in the sunshine. Instead of an app, device, or screen showing them how to do something, kids are doing it for themselves.

Get outside. Learn something new. Enjoy being a kid and being around other kids. This is the formula for the second Unplug and Be Outside program, taking place in Kootenai County today through Saturday.

Children and their families can choose from almost 60 free activities – including Yoga, broomball, Zumba, ice-skating and fly tying classes – during what is spring break for many students.

“We all work together to offer these free activities for one week to our community,” said Josh Oakes, Recreation Coordinator of the Post Falls Parks and Recreation Department.

Blue Cross of Idaho sponsors the statewide program, which relies on local organizations to provide many of the resources that fuel program activities. In North Idaho, the program is collaborating with more than a dozen organizations, such as the Boys and Girls Club of Kootenai County, Peak Health and Wellness Center, the Kroc Center and the Frontier Ice Arena.

The program aims to “empower all Idahoans to lead healthy lives by developing a sense of place in the Idaho outdoors.” Oakes, who discovered the Unplug and Be Outside program at a recreational conference in West Yellowstone, sees the impact technology is making on children, citing that children are spending an average of 30 hours per week watching television or playing a video game.

Growing up in southeastern Idaho, Josh Oakes experienced that sense of place for himself.

“As a father, I am really passionate about this program. I want my kids to have the same experiences I had as a kid,” Oakes said. “We were always camping, biking, hiking and cross-country skiing.”

He wants other families to find that place, too.

“There’s a lot of people in our community that do not have the means to do all of these activities. Many can’t just sign up for martial arts or broomball. Many don’t even know these services are available. So people can experience those things for free,” Oakes said.

And if that person ends up loving martial arts, that’s an open door for them, Oakes said.

Last Saturday, the first day of the Unplug and Be Outside program in North Idaho this year, was a launch pad for this week’s events.

Aiden Meyers, 9, of Coeur d’Alene, helped teach the “Archery Instruction with CDA Bowmen” with his father and sister. More than 70 people showed up to the free event.

“I kind of felt responsible,” Aiden said. “I taught them how to hold the bow still and don’t put your arm way in so the string will hit it. I have been shooting for four years now. When I hit the target, I give everybody high fives and I feel like I am getting better every time.”

“He’s doing really good,” said Aiden’s dad, Mark Myers. “He’s probably going to trophy this year in his winter league. His sister is a deadeye, too. Shortly after the kids were leaving, Aiden put up a balloon to shoot but before he could shoot it, his sister shot the balloon from clear across the room,” Meyers said.

Mark’s marksmen were among six other “range masters” who aided in teaching participants archery skills.

“The kids and parents were really excited,” Meyers said. “You could hear the parents in the background, saying, ‘Good job, honey, great shot.’ It was great. When the kids would hit the targets, their faces would just light up.”

“The CDA Bowmen did a really good job with them. There were a lot of smiles,” Oakes said. “And at the exact same time Real Life Ministries was having a huge Easter egg hunt. People were parking down the road by Ziggy’s (Building Materials).”

Of all the benefits the program offers to others, Oakes can pinpoint the program’s greatest reward to him.

“I would say the most rewarding part of my job is when you spend two to three months putting together a week of events like this – all of the details, the meetings, teams, locations – and then, there’s this moment on opening day when all of a sudden the activities start, and all of the kids are playing and running around, and you realize you were instrumental in putting all of that together.”

For a complete schedule of this week’s Unplug and Be Outside events, visit