Best Local Heroes: Steve Gleason, Rick Clark, Mandy Manning

From left: Steve Gleason, Rick Clark and Mandy Manning inspire Inlander readers in different ways.
  • From left: Steve Gleason, Rick Clark and Mandy Manning inspire Inlander readers in different ways.

STEVE GLEASON 

A Spokane native and former National Football League star with the New Orleans Saints, Steve Gleason was diagnosed in 2011 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a nervous system disease that weakens muscles and limits physical function.

In response, he went to work helping other people with ALS.

Gleason founded a nonprofit, Team Gleason, which focuses on raising awareness about ALS and helping patients with ALS or other neuromuscular diseases. He also successfully lobbied for the passage of the Steve Gleason Act, which guaranteed Medicare funding for communication devices for ALS patients.

Then, earlier this year, he received a Congressional Gold Medal from federal lawmakers for his advocacy work. When it was announced that he was recommended for the medal by a unanimous vote in the U.S. House of Representatives, Gleason said that while he felt "undeserving" of it, he'd accept it on behalf of other people suffering from ALS and similar diseases, according to news accounts.

Locally, he collaborated with Washington State University to establish the Steve Gleason Institute for Neuroscience in the University District, a research center which will open in the second half of this year.

RICK CLARK, GIVING BACKPACKS SPOKANE

Four years ago, Rick Clark, a lifelong Spokane resident, was at the end of his rope. Born into poverty and a high school dropout who had struggled with drugs and alcohol, Clark, then 44, was living in a trailer in Medical Lake. He was behind on his rent, unemployed, and in a rocky third marriage.

"It was like the worst day of my life," he says.

Then he took a chance and got enrolled at Spokane Community College. Now, he's two months away from graduating from Gonzaga University with a bachelor's degree in communications and runs a small budding nonprofit, Giving Backpacks Spokane.

Through Giving Backpacks, Clark hands out backpacks to homeless people stuffed with everything from new pairs of socks to bus passes and library cards — all of which are donated by community members and institutions. So far they've given out around 3,100 backpacks, and, through financial donations, are expanding their services, such as paying for long-distance bus tickets.

But more importantly, he says, Giving Backpacks also gives people hope and human connection.

"I was doing my homework in my van with a flashlight at SCC, homeless, four years ago," Clark says. "And now I'm at Gonzaga getting ready to walk across the stage. Homeless people, they hear that and they're like, 'Wait, so this might not define who I am as a person?'"

When Clark gave Michael Jones — a homeless man — a backpack and his business card on a recent sunny afternoon, the power of his work was evident. Jones, who suffered from frostbite and recently got out of the hospital, said he needed new boots, some money to pay his phone bill, and a winter jacket. Clark said he could get him those things.

"I love you man. You're really gonna help me?" Jones asked.

"Yeah," Clark said.

MANDY MANNING, NATIONAL TEACHER OF THE YEAR

Manning, who has been a teacher for the past 19 years, currently works at Spokane's Joel E. Ferris High School, where she teaches English as a second language to immigrant and refugee students. She was also named Teacher of the Year in 2018.

In that capacity, she's been travelling around the country advocating against the detention of migrant children by spearheading the Teachers Against Child Detention Campaign. She's written newspaper op-eds and organized a recent teach-in with teachers from around the country in El Paso, Texas, on the incarceration of immigrant youth in America.

She also staged a silent protest at the White House when President Donald Trump presented her with her National Teacher of the Year award last year; Manning wore overtly political buttons — such as one supporting trans rights — to protest Trump's policies. She also presented him with a stack of letters from her students discussing their experiences as immigrants in America.

"Most likely, I have had children in my classroom who in a different time would have been placed in detention," Manning recently told the Inlander. "I would hope that people wouldn't see locking up children as 'Republican' or 'Democrat.'"

1st PLACE: Steve Gleason; 2nd PLACE: Rick Clark; 3rd PLACE, Mandy Manning