A Life and Career Spent Serving Others

By Sandra Williams

Denise Osei has been a pillar in the Spokane community for as long as I can remember. She retired this year from Spokane Falls Community College, and when the Spokane community honored her in May for her many years of community service and dedication to helping Spokane’s youth and young adults, she made a point of first recognizing those that she says paved the way for what she has been able to accomplish.

“I am thankful for what our elders went through, because if they had not done what they did, people from my generation, we would not have been able to hold the jobs that we did, and accomplish the things that we have. So, it wasn’t that Denise Osei was so special, it was what was instilled in me at a very early age.”

Denise Osei was born in Paducah, Kentucky, a small town in the segregated south, where she attended segregated schools. She grew up poor, but realized that she was rich in many other ways.

“Maybe in a way I knew I was poor, but it didn’t sink in to me because we had all of this love, and there was one thing that the community did, particularly the black community, was to share with each other, so that everyone could make it somehow, and to not just love your child, but to love the other children as well. Unlike today, if they saw you do something wrong, they were going to admonish you right there. Then they were going to call your momma.”

Denise’s mother was a maid. In fact, Denise says, “I can’t think of any mothers that were not maids.” But she said her mother did whatever she had to do to take care of her children and to instill in them that they could do better. “She always told us, what you have in your head nobody can take away from you, so get your education.”

Denise did just that. She attended Linfield College, a small, Baptist college in McMinnville, Oregon, where she earned two Bachelor’s Degrees, one in Psychology and the other in Sociology, while working 2-3 jobs to put herself through school. Her first job out of college, was as a counselor with a company called Talent Search, where she spent two years as a counselor before being promoted to director.

“Working in Portland was amazing. I could call a workshop at 8am on a Saturday morning, and we would use the ballroom at Portland State, and it would be full. The parents wanted so much for their children to do better. The students would come, the parents would come. It was a beautiful thing. I placed students all over the country in colleges and now they are Vice Presidents of banks. Human Resources. Computer Scientists.”

From Portland, Denise moved to Texas with her husband who was attending graduate school. Texas, she says, was “very different.” When Denise went into the local school district and asked for an application for employment, the lady at the counter asked if she wanted a custodial or a cafeteria application. Denise was hired by Texas A&M University and worked in residential Life, supervising staff, before moving to Spokane in 1991.

In Spokane, Denise started at Spokane Community College as a Multicultural Specialist, primarily working with students of color, then moved to the Institute for Extended Learning as a Diversity Specialist, working with special populations and underrepresented students, and finally she moved to Spokane Falls Community College, where she was hired as a General Counselor, but did so much more than that for the college and for the community.

As Ben Cabildo, the Economic Development Director at Community Minded Enterprises, put it, “Denise went beyond her job as an advisor and counselor. She took care of her students like a mother caring for her sons and daughter’s.” Wallace Williams, a long time educator in Spokane, added that for Denise, “every day was about improving the lives of young people and she made a significant impact.”

On a personal note, Mona Carter, Denise’s friend of fifty plus years, who travelled to Spokane from Florida for the retirement celebration, said “Denise is a rare jewel and I know that is the same thing that the people in Spokane have seen in her as well.”

The highlight of her career, Denise says, “was to be able to help others, to help them change their lives so that they didn’t have to worry about how they were going to pay rent or get food on the table or take care of their children, that was what was most important to me.” She also mentioned the joy of seeing students achieve. “Like a rose at the beginning of the year, it was closed, but by the end of the year, it was in full bloom. Just to see that growth was a wonderful thing for me, because I got as much from them as I gave to them.”

Denise also said that she is grateful for the support of her husband and her son, who she says she was always dragging along with her. “Whatever we did, we did as a family, and you will find that most of the time when people talk about me, they will talk about us, because were always together.”

Now that she is retired, Denise has followed her son’s advice and started doing ceramics, something that she gave up when she became a mother. She is also doing more reading, and is helping out at her church, Bethel AME.

And she is planning to start travelling, Denise said, “any of the Islands. I love the islands and I want to see my son more often. I don’t think God is done with me yet.”

It is a retirement that was well-earned. Thank you Denise for your service to the Spokane Community.