When Kay Escarda heard that her colleagues on Arcata's Community Land Trust (a division of the nonprofit Humboldt Bay Housing and Development Corporation) wanted to name a street after her, she was honored, to be sure. But she didn't think much more about it. As a veteran volunteer and community activist, she's received numerous honors and awards over the years. Plus, she'd seen the street in question on a map, and it was tiny. Barely an inch long.
But shortly thereafter, Escarda went to check on the progress of the CLT project, a 10-unit affordable housing development in the Janes Creek subdivision, and there, affixed to the side of a telephone meter, she saw a label that read "Escarda Ct." Suddenly the gesture didn't seem so inconsequential. The name "Escarda" will be remembered in 100 years, she realized, at least by the mailman.
"Looking at the sign I thought, 'Geez. This is a bigger deal than I thought,'" Escarda said.
Street sign or no, she may be underestimating her name's staying power. A retired schoolteacher whose subjects ranged from English and social sciences to music and home economics, Escarda has influenced countless lives. Her altruism goes at least as far back as the early 1960s when, as a social worker with the county, she helped people struggling with substance abuse and developed a community directory of social services. She's been a member of the League of Women Voters for 45 years and has volunteered extensively with health care, education and housing organizations.
At a Eureka City Council meeting last month, just the mention of her name brought an uncommon harmony to the proceedings. One moment Mayor Virginia Bass and Councilman Larry Glass were heatedly talking over the top of each other; the next they were waxing rhapsodic about Escarda, who was up for reappointment to the city's Housing Authority.
"I think Kay Escarda does a wonderful job," Glass said.
"You're absolutely correct on that," Bass enthused. "Kay's a gem."
"I agree," Councilman Jeff Leonard chimed in. Her reappointment was unanimous.
Over coffee in Eureka last week, Escarda said her focus shifted from health care to housing after President Ronald Reagan cut funding to many of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society social reform programs.
"I thought health care was dead in the water," Escarda said.
Housing studies done by the League of Women Voters had reinforced in Escarda the fundamental importance of a safe home -- something she'd learned firsthand during her childhood in the northern Washington town of Sedro-Woolley. Her father had been in the midst of constructing an indoor bathroom when he fell ill. For years, a toilet and bathtub sat in crates on the floor while the family trudged outdoors, often through snow, to use an outhouse.
"This was during and after the war," Escarda said. "Nobody had anything, really. But I was the only person I knew without an indoor bathroom."
Over the years, Escarda has participated in three rounds of the county's General Plan housing element update, held numerous educational workshops, advocated for the homeless and helped establish Eureka's Multiple Assistance Center. As a founding member of HBHDC, Escarda has helped provide local residents with 105 affordable rental units. Through the Community Land Trust, the agency has produced and sold 10 homes, with another 10 nearly finished.
When an HBHDC property manager suffered a stroke several years ago, Escarda stepped in as a full-time volunteer. Shortly thereafter, another property manager suffered a heart attack, and Escarda stepped in again. In all, she spent more than two years as a full-time volunteer. She's still on the board and has continued to volunteer one day per week.
"I wanted to see the organization survive," she explained. With her gentle smile, Escarda looks every bit the mild-mannered high school teacher teacher she once was, which makes this fierce determination for social justice somewhat surprising.
"Well," she said, "I'm kind of a bulldog. I get a hold of something and, you know ..." She bared her teeth and shook her head. "Grrr. I don't let go."
Former and current HBHDC colleagues vouched for that assertion. "The thing is about Kay, she perseveres until it gets done," said former board member Thea Gast.
"I just love Kay," said Elizabeth Conner, who has worked with Escarda on affordable housing projects. "She's always pleasant ... but no one should confuse her with a 'sweet old lady' either, because she is dead serious about the causes she champions."
County Supervisor Bonnie Neely simply called her "a wonderful human being."
Like most other nonprofits, HBHDC has fallen on lean times during the recession. The agency faces additional challenges, Escarda said, since the housing market has just as many complex requirements as the nonprofit world, and the two realms often don't fit together cleanly. Each funding agency requires a different set of information at different times of the year, while housing construction requires pre-development money, which HBHDC doesn't have since they're not allowed to make a profit.
Sorting it all out "takes an incredible amount of time," Escarda said, "and we have a very small, underpaid staff."
In a few rare cases, they're not paid at all.
A street-naming ceremony with local luminaries and employees of HBHDC will be held Friday at noon at Escarda Ct. in the Janes Creek subdivision off St. Louis Rd. in Arcata. For more information, call HBHDC at 826-7312.