It’s about 30 miles between Yakima — where Cheri Root works as a paralegal for a local law firm — and White Swan, the unincorporated community on the Yakama reservation where she lives.
Long commutes are typical for people in White Swan. In 2015, about 86 percent of the jobs held by residents within the 98952 ZIP code, which includes White Swan, Brownstown and Harrah, were at least 10 miles away, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Center for Economic Studies. About 31.3 percent were at least 25 miles away.
Root, 38, also took a long journey, figuratively, to get to that job. Growing up in White Swan, Root, an enrolled Yakama, received little to no guidance on careers or higher education. All she knew when she graduated from high school in 2000 was that college was a better alternative than drinking or partying.
She only lasted three months. She struggled to save enough money for the gas she needed for the 40-mile round trip to Heritage University in Toppenish. She deprived herself of food for several days to get enough to fill up her gas tank, but the effort proved unsustainable.
“When you graduate from high school, there really are no resources, nothing for you that says, ‘This is what you need to do,’ ” she said.
Root eventually attained success, but her initial struggles illustrate the reality that residents of White Swan and other rural communities face: The lack of a clear path to financial success.
As a result, many residents are out of work and depend on government assistance to support themselves and their families. Unemployment among those 16 or older looking for civilian jobs in White Swan alone was 7.5 percent as of 2017, according to census data, well above the 4.6 percent for Yakima County. For the 98952 ZIP code, unemployment was at 5.9 percent.
In 2017, about 32 percent of the 2,425 residents in the 98952 ZIP code had incomes below the poverty line. As of May, 970 residents participated in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. Recent numbers show there were 208 residents in the SNAP for Women, Infant and Children, or WIC. Both programs provide food assistance.
Out of reach
Even a minimum wage job at the White Swan Trading Post, the White Swan gas station and convenience store owned by Shawna Young and her family, can be out of reach if someone doesn’t have a car.
Many residents in the area live miles from White Swan’s core.
Also, Young notes that some employees drive from White Swan to her family’s other convenience shops, such as The Topp Stop in Toppenish, about 20 miles away.
“I don’t think people realize the challenge people have just to make it to White Swan for a minimum wage job,” said Young, 39.
Young married into the family. But before that, she worked for her in-laws, Karen and Gary Young, while she was a high school student.
That experience gave her a taste of the successful future she could create for herself.
“I just didn’t want to be poor anymore,” she said.
After running the businesses for many years, she now is focused on community service and running for a school board seat for the Mt. Adams School District.
Many rural communities lack the financial and educational support young people — and adults — need to achieve career goals, said Eleni Papadakis, executive director of the Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board, a state agency focused on helping residents find and keep good jobs and helping employers secure skilled workers.
“I don’t think we do enough to invest in helping young people develop those visions of success and helping them navigate the pathways (to success),” she said.
Recently, the council secured a federal grant to conduct a series of forums, including one at the Yakama Nation Cultural Center in Toppenish, to listen to businesses, educators and community advocates discuss what rural communities need to thrive economically.
It became clear to Papadakis that many state policies intended to boost economic prospects in small rural communities were geared toward more urban areas. As a result, those policies end up hindering local communities rather than helping them.
And while different community groups in rural areas are able to gather together to brainstorm ideas to tackle an issue, they end up lacking the funding they need to execute ideas, Papadakis said.
Funding has been an issue in maintaining programs critical to White Swan residents.
The Fort Simcoe Job Corps facility west of White Swan, which provided hands-on job training for youths 16 to 24, is expected to close due to federal funding cuts.
“For a lot of our kids, that was an avenue to get a certificate, to get an education in their own backyard,” Young said. “That’s one more thing that’s being taken away from the community.”
Craig St. Hilaire grew up on his family’s farm on the corner of Evans and Stephenson roads. After graduating from college, he returned to work on the family farm.
Today, St. Hilaire is president of Labbeemint Inc. The business at 11793 Fort Road in White Swan provides mint oils to customers around the world that use them to add flavor to items such as chewing gum and toothpaste.
The company, which also has plants in Wisconsin and Idaho, employs up to about 35 people during the summer months in White Swan. They include skilled workers that run the machines to distill and blend mint oils, relationship managers who work with mint growers who supply the company, and technicians and scientists who ensure that the product meets safety standards.
Many of the jobs require, at minimum, experience in operating machines and some involve obtaining college degrees.
St. Hilaire notes that many of White Swan’s businesses, including Labbeemint, were started by White Swan residents and families. Labbeemint was started by the late Jack Labbee, a mint farmer in the area.
Some residents were able “to recognize those opportunities and have been able to succeed,” he said.
However, he doesn’t discount the challenges White Swan residents face, such as lack of resources and struggles with substance abuse.
“Overcoming the hurdles to take advantage of what opportunities are here, that’s the challenge,” he said.
Even jobs with the Yakama Nation’s agencies in White Swan are competitive and require a trip to the tribe’s headquarters in Toppenish. More of those jobs require a degree or some higher education.
On Thursday, sisters Toni Sandoval, 22, and Brooke Sandoval, 21, stopped by the White Swan Trading Post after a day working as interns at Yakama Nation Forest Development. Toni and Brooke both finished their junior year at Central Washington University, where they are studying environmental studies and biology, respectively.
That education has helped the women, both Yakama members from Wapato, secure jobs with the Yakama Nation.
“Pretty much everyone says, ‘We need young kids who are going for an education,’ ” Brooke Sandoval said.
Initially, Toni Sandoval studied education at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, which led to a job as a teacher with Head Start in White Swan. That experience made her realize she didn’t want to be a teacher and prompted her to switch majors.
A tribal-owned business, Yakama Forest Products employs about 240 people, according to its website. And Jeld-Wen operated a plant in White Swan before closing about a decade ago.
In 2016, Vancouver-based businessman John Fujii launched efforts to open Neucor, a wood paneling plant, at the facility.
The plant has operated off and on since then. Fujii said it’s been challenging to secure financing and, more recently, he has had health issues. The plant shut down in November after operating for about a year with a small staff.
Fujii said he’s looking into options, such as bringing in an equity partner, to keep the operation going. He’s hoping to have the plant running again by next month.
But while the jobs are nearby, the inability to get necessary skills and education or even secure essential means, such as a car, means those positions can remain out of reach.
“Education is a huge (financial) burden on a lot of people,” said Root, the White Swan native. “Now, you have to have a bachelor’s degree to do anything.”
After dropping out of Heritage, Root headed to Seattle, where she signed up with a modeling agency. She then traveled to different parts of the U.S. and worked in various jobs to get by.
But years of a nomadic lifestyle took its toll. Used to a tight-knit Native community, Root started to feel increasingly isolated and lonely. She was homesick.
“You’re craving for that other Native, and you can’t find them,” she said.
However, after returning home, she realized that reintegrating herself in the Native community presented its challenges.
That’s when she experienced another challenge nobody prepared her to tackle: Learning how to maintain and cherish her Native community while learning to navigate the world outside it to reach her life and career goals.
“Walking in those two worlds is difficult,” she said. “You don’t want to appear incompetent off the reservation. You want to stand proud and show that … Natives are intelligent.”
She pressed on. In 2011, she returned to Heritage University. This time, she had a decade of life and work experience behind her.
In 2015, she graduated with a criminal justice degree. She worked in a variety of legal jobs, including as a tribal judge in Toppenish. She would eventually like to get into a program that provides an alternative route to be an attorney, namely through working as a law clerk for a veteran lawyer.
“My plan is to come back to the tribe as an attorney and help wherever I can,” she said. “I just don’t like people being cheated. I’ve seen them cheated out of opportunities.”
Root knows she is a success story, but she is aware of the barriers that keep other young people from securing employment.
Until there are large-scale changes, she hopes her story can inspire other young Natives.
“Just to not give up and keep going forward,” she said.