Memorial planned for Islander who devoted life to street kids

Jonathan Roise, a Bainbridge Islander who spent much of his life helping street children in Nicaragua, passed away at the age of 67. A memorial will be held Saturday, Oct. 27 at Eagle Harbor Church.  - Photo courtesy of Joshua Roise
Jonathan Roise, a Bainbridge Islander who spent much of his life helping street children in Nicaragua, passed away at the age of 67. A memorial will be held Saturday, Oct. 27 at Eagle Harbor Church.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Joshua Roise

He found inspiration in Mississippi, helping register African Americans to vote during Freedom Summer in those hot days of the civil rights movement in 1963.

He found inspiration in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., watching from the crowd with hundreds of thousands of others after the March on Washington to the Baptist minister’s plea for racial equality as he gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

He found inspiration while participating in the boycotts of labor leader César Chávez and his support of struggling farm workers.

But for so many others, it was Jonathan Roise, the man himself, who was inspiring.

Jonathan Harold Roise, a longtime Bainbridge Islander who spent much of his life doing social work in his second home of Nicaragua, died Oct. 14 after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 67.

“He always had a strong affinity just for basic human dignity, and for solidarity. I think that was a very strong theme in his life,” said his son, Joshua Roise of Oakland, Calif.

Though he had only one son biologically, Jonathon Roise was a father to hundreds of kids he rescued from despair in the streets of Nicaragua.

The son of a Marine Corps colonel, Jonathon Roise attended Stanford College and was the editor of the Stanford Daily. A Quaker, he was a conscientious objector during Vietnam War.

He found his life’s work in Nicaragua, however.

He moved there in 1990, and worked as the director of the Quaker Center in Managua and helped launch community development projects throughout the country.

A few years later, with the help of Mercedes Guido, they founded Si a la Vida, a project to provide hope as well as homes to the homeless children who lived in the markets. It was based on the principles of personal responsibility and non-violence.

“When he was working in the Quaker Center in Managua, he became aware of the large number of kids who were living in the market, sniffing glue because of poverty or abuse, and he and Mercedes Guido decided they needed to do something to help those kids,” said Nancy Quitsland of the Bainbridge Ometepe Sisters Islands Association.

Quitsland recalled how Roise found a convent that would let the street kids sleep on the floor overnight, and how fundraising efforts eventually led to the construction of a small shelter for rehabilitating the children.

Roise’s work led to an eventual partnership with the Bainbridge Ometepe Sisters Islands Association, with student delegations from Bainbridge visiting Si a la Vida for outings and visits with the boys, and the establishment of a second center on Ometepe, made possible by financial support from Bainbridge.

“It was never meant to be an orphanage,” Quitsland explained. “It was meant to be a place to rehabilitate the kids and give them self respect and skills. They’ve been incredibly successful at that.”

“Those kids knew that they were worthwhile human beings,” she said.

Roise’s son, Joshua, said a visit to Nicaragua in 1991 left an impression he’s never forgotten.

“These little kids were just basically living in the dump next to the market. These were babies, extremely malnourished, just packs of forgotten kids.”

He recalled seeing children sniffing glue to ease their hunger pangs, and the hazed-over looks in their eyes.”

“That was one of the most disturbing days of my life. I was just haunted,” he said.

His father’s mission became clear, and it was work he continued until his health gave out and he had to return to Washington for medical care.

“Jonathan had a big heart. Not just a big heart, but the ability to do things,” Quitsland said.

“He had such a rapport with those kids. He expected a lot from them,” she added. “He just deeply cared about every one of those kids.”

A memorial service will be held 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 27 at Eagle Harbor Church.

Donations in Roise’s memory may be made to Amigos de Si a la Vida, PO Box 30191, Seattle, WA 98103-0191.

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