Habitat for Humanity in Whatcom County

Honoring the Legacy of Noriko Lao

Noriko was an amazing person and an amazing volunteer. No words can describe how inspiring she was to see in action. And for the vast majority of us who struggle with being selfless, and struggle with making time to serve others, Noriko showed through her actions how easy it all was. Her kindness was natural and effortless, and left you wondering, as Janie Pemble said, the Outreach Director for Interfaith Coalition, “I often think, what would the world be like if everyone was like Noriko.”

Not long after we celebrated her 80th birthday at the Telegraph Townhome site, Noriko was diagnosed with cancer and began treatment at UW Medical Center. Our construction and volunteer team began to think of ways to honor her, and to thank her for so many years of hard work. They knew that for Noriko, the best way to thank her would be to pay it forward. It became an obvious choice to partner with the Interfaith Coalition for a project, since she had been involved with their amazing work for so long.

Noriko suggested we work on the Little House—an emergency shelter run by Interfaith, used for families working their way out of homelessness. The Habitat team spent two days there, making repairs, and getting it move-in ready.

For over 20 years, Noriko had been a dedicated volunteer, not only at Habitat, but throughout our community. She was heavily involved with her church and won the Women in Ministry award from the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Methodist Church. They wrote, “She stands for the rights of all people – for immigrants, for children and youth, for women young and old and for the full inclusion within the United Methodist Church of members of the LGBTQ community. She acts globally and locally.”

The League of Women voters named her in their issue of 52 women of Whatcom County, which celebrated the history of our community by sharing stories of, “local women who made a difference through their accomplishments, active community involvement, or inspiring representation in different fields,” during each week of 2020, the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage.

She was a volunteer math tutor at Bellingham Technical College, a Volunteer Coordinator at Lydia place, she holds a place on the YWCA Northwest Women’s Hall of Fame, was one of the volunteers involved at Family Promise since its inception, and traveled to aide in disaster relief in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, and the Fukushima earthquake in Japan. Her latest honor was the Luminary Award by the Whatcom Housing Alliance, which is given to “individuals, nonprofits, and businesses whose work has made a significant impact benefiting the local community. They have demonstrated excellence in leadership, collaboration, ingenuity, and strength.”

But to be truly impressed by Noriko, all you had to do was work with her for a few minutes. At the Little House, during the Noriko Day of Service, Mike Roberts shared a story from his first days working with Noriko:

“20 some years ago, when we were finishing up a house, I was working outside, and she came up to me and asked if I needed some help. I said, ‘actually I do need some help.’ We were doing some landscaping and I said, ‘I need to move these three railroad ties from the front of the house to the back of the house,’ and she looked at me—now Noriko is very short and very thin—she looked at me and said, ‘If you take one end I’ll take the other.’ And sure enough, she packed all three of them, her end of the railroad ties around to the back side of the house. It’s been my experience that that kind of work ethic and that kind of willingness describes her participation at Habitat throughout the years.”

As the Habitat crew was finishing their work on the Little House on the afternoon of September 25th, Noriko passed away. She was serving others, and making the world a better place up to the last minute. She left Interfaith her own home here in Bellingham (the largest gift they’ve received so far), which will allow the Interfaith Coalition to greatly increase their outreach in our community. She left us a better world than she found, and memories of her incredible selflessness will inspire us all to be better.

“God is the Creator of all people,” she said, “We are all God’s children. We must carry on our legacy of faith, love and action.”

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