Bruce Benton
United Way of San Juan County, Board Member


Can you share a little bit about yourself?

I was born in Miami, Florida in 1942, where my father was stationed to train for World War II. He served as a Navy lieutenant in Antwerp, Belgium – known then as the “City of Sudden Death” due to the incessant German bombing. Upon his return, we lived in Lynn, Massachusetts where he was the Executive Director of the Community Fund – a precursor of United Way. Sadly, he died tragically when I was five from an allergic reaction to penicillin. Because of his untimely death, I developed a strong sense of compassion for those I perceived as disadvantaged through no fault of their own, which has shaped much of my career and volunteer work ever since. Two examples are: 1) leading the effort for two decades to eliminate the disease, riverblindness (onchocerciasis), devastating the poorest, remote areas throughout Africa, and writing the authoritative account of that global-health success in Riverblindness in Africa: Taming the Lion’s Stare, in 2020; and 2) serving as Big Brother to a fatherless boy in DC for more than 50 years.

Following my father’s death, my mother and I moved to Columbus, Ohio to live with my father’s parents – where I grew up. I left Columbus in 1960 to attend Kalamazoo College in Michigan. After graduation, I served for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, teaching in Guinea, West Africa, followed by graduate studies before launching my career.

Patricia and I met at the US Treasury Department in the late 1970s, where I was Deputy-Director of the Office of Raw Materials and Oceans Policy, negotiating international commodity agreements. We married in 1983 and moved to Bethesda, Maryland. It was an extraordinarily busy time for us, raising four children and holding down two demanding careers – including my extensive traveling in Africa and elsewhere overseas 40% of the time.

After retiring from the World Bank and when Patricia was winding up her career as COO and CFO of the large healthcare company, we began exploring moving West for a new adventure. We had come to Orcas on a family vacation in 2015, but were looking throughout the West, e.g., Boulder, Santa Fe, Flagstaff. Eventually, we contacted a local real estate agent, David Douglass, who found a place 500 feet away from where we had spent our family vacation – in the Rosario neighborhood. We bought that condo with the intention of visiting from time to time from Bethesda. In 2020, we made the leap to move to OI permanently. We knew OI was beautiful, but virtually nothing about the community.  Since, we have been thrilled to become part of this community – consisting of many like-minded, caring people concerned with improving the lives of disadvantaged, vulnerable Islanders and sustaining the Island’s pristine environment.

Almost immediately, I was struck by the problem of vehicle (internal combustion engine-ICE) emissions, including the explosion of ICE-driving tourists during the summer months. The emissions worsen air quality and increase Salish Sea acidification, threatening surrounding marine life, notably shellfish, an important local industry and employer. EV adoption was an obvious solution. But the lack of EV infrastructure, i.e., publicly available charging stations, is a major barrier for Islanders to transition to EVs; and for tourists with EVs visiting OI.

In late 2020, Patricia mentioned to Hilary Canty my interests, and Hilary suggested I contact Island Rides (IR) on Lopez (Curt VanHyning), which was considering a free green transportation program for OI. I helped IR purchase its first used EV with OICF donated funds and begin recruiting volunteer drivers to launch operations on OI. Since then, I’ve become an IR Board member and its Treasurer. IR has expanded dramatically on Orcas since, to three EVs (a fourth is expected soon) and 20 volunteer drivers. I love this program because it addresses environmental concerns and the needs of the vulnerable – seniors, the poor, the less mobile – by providing free green transportation to those unable to drive, making Food Bank deliveries, and getting groceries and prescriptions to the immobile. IR is also a traveling advertisement for EVs. I’ve noticed the impact. Several volunteer drivers, for example, have shifted to EVs after becoming acquainted with their advantages in reduced transportation costs and environmental benefits.

I’m hopeful about securing Washington State funding to carry out two projects I’ve been preparing – an OI EV Charging Project and an EV Carsharing Program for the OPAL neighborhoods. If we can somehow pull these off, I believe it will have a dramatic impact on OI. All major residential areas on the Island will have access to publicly-available charging and many of the lower income areas to EVs for daily transportation needs. These programs will increase awareness of the cost-savings advantages of green transportation. With greater EV adoption, we will see environmental improvements and significantly lowered transportation costs on OI – making it easier for essential-service workers to live and raise families here. I’m hoping that they might also contribute to a greater sense of community and environmental awareness – as participating businesses and nonprofits realize they are contributing to improving the Island way of life.

I was asked to become the OI representative for United Way (UW) Board of San Juan County this past December. There hasn’t been an OI representative on the Board for several years. I was taken aback by the considerably lower support for UW here than on SJI and Lopez. Orcas Islanders need to be made aware of the valued services that UW provides here. We need to better define how UW serves our needs, work on strengthening the OI UW program, and on raising awareness of that program in order to generate greater OI support. This is what I hope to accomplish as the OI representative on the UW Board.

Tell us a little bit about the organization you volunteer at?

United Way is countywide and focuses its activities on San Juan, Lopez, and Orcas Islands. On Orcas, it is a strong supporter of early childhood education programs and of the groundwork of OCRC in its many activities that benefit the disadvantaged and needy on the Island. Other special programs include the computer refurbishment program to get working computers to those that can’t afford them and the UW goal of strengthening financial literacy for a substantial majority of Islanders. I would like to see United Way step up support to expand OCRC’s current pilot effort on financial literacy on Orcas.

After becoming the OI representative on the UW Board, I was surprised and somewhat disappointed to learn that UW donations from Orcas are considerably less than the other San Juan Islands – despite an active UW presence here. Undesignated donations from San Juan Island are nine times greater, and from Lopez Island, four times greater, than from Orcas – despite a Lopez population that is less than half that of Orcas. We need to do much more here to publicize UW programs and their impact throughout the community.

What does volunteering do for you?

Volunteering gives me a sense of purpose and belonging to the wider Orcas community that I cherish. Living here would be far less meaningful without active involvement in the OI community. Many of our needs are greater because we are an island community. It’s extremely important for me to assume some responsibility for ensuring that our community can thrive in the face of Island challenges. Because it is so special and beautiful here, all of our citizens deserve to enjoy our Island environment. They are able to do so far more effectively if their basic needs are met, and provided we protect our pristine environment for all, including our precious marine life. I get tremendous satisfaction in helping in some small way to achieve that.


Visit the United Way of San Juan County to learn more. Reach out to them if you would like to get involved.

If you would like to learn about other volunteer opportunities on Orcas, please email Ed. He would love to get together for tea/coffee to chat about your interests.