On a recent day, United Way of Lewis County Executive Director Debbie Campbell received a surprising gift in the form of a note and $500 left in the mail.
“We would like to honor Peter Abbarno for all he does to further education in Lewis County,” read the short letter, written by a local woman who had recently lost her husband.
She didn’t know Abbarno particularly well, but his work in the community had inspired her and her late husband to contribute to a cause he supports.
To Campbell, it’s another piece of tangible, heartwarming evidence of the impacts made by Abbarno, a prolific local volunteer, Centralia city councilor and attorney who has for years dedicated his time, money and expertise to dozens of causes and organizations in both Lewis and Thurston counties.
“Peter has a heart to make our community a better place,” Campbell said. “He believes that improving a community is about solving problems and he not only gives of his time, talent and resources, he supports the good work of others with strategic brainstorming and connecting people with resources. Peter has good will in his heart, and with his energy and perseverance, he has achieved great things for our community.”
Indeed, it might be quicker to name the organizations Abbarno has not volunteered his time to than those he has.
In addition to the United Way of Lewis County, he and his family have been involved with The Hub City Mission, Friends of the Seminary Hill Natural Area, Lewis County Seniors, Raise for Rowyn, the Centralia College Foundation, Specialized Activities and Recreation in the Community (SPARC), the Forgotten Children’s Fund, Lewis County Special Olympics, the Centralia-Chehalis Chamber of Commerce, the Boys and Girls Club of Chehalis, the Visiting Nurses Foundation, the Lewis Economic Development Council and Centralia Little League, in addition to other efforts.
“I love this community,” Abbarno said in a recent interview with The Chronicle. “I’m devoted to it.”
In honor of Abbarno’s intense and ongoing dedication to the community, The Chronicle has chosen Abbarno as its 2019 Person of the Year, a distinction that since 2010 has been provided to an individual in the area who has gone beyond the duties of their profession to enact positive changes in the community.
Growing Up and Getting to Lewis County
Abbarno, 44, isn’t a native of Lewis County. In fact, he didn’t move to the community until 2010, when he was hired at what was then Olson Althauser Samuelson & Rayan, LLP in downtown Centralia.
At the time, he had applied for jobs across the state. In the years prior, he had received his juris doctor from the Vermont School of Law and a law degree in taxation from the University of Washington before working jobs as a deputy prosecutor in King County along with additional stints at the state Attorney General’s Office and the University of Washington Federal Tax Clinic.
Prior to that, he enjoyed a career in the political arena, working for the political campaign of longtime New York lawmaker Amory “Amo” Houghton. He later became a media and policy coordinator for Republicans in the New York State Assembly before, in 2000, becoming executive director of the Vermont Republican Party. He was asked
to move to Washington state to become executive director of the state Republican Party in 2001, according to previous Chronicle reporting.
On that Saturday morning in 2010, as he arrived for the job interview during his first trip to Centralia, he determined it would be his home, he said.
“I was looking for something more,” he recalled. “I was looking for community … and I fell in love. The area chose me as much as I chose it. It felt right, right when I got into town.”
Within a short amount of time, he met his future wife, Holly, a Rochester native who in the years since they met has joined him in volunteering efforts that have now grown to include their two children, 6-year-old Antonio and 7-year-old Sophia. She’s also an eighth-grade teacher in the Centralia School District.
Together, they live in Centralia’s Edison District, where it’s just a short walk to both Abbarno’s office and the children’s elementary school. Their family unit reflects a truth Abbarno believes applies to any given community.
“The key to a strong, successful community is a strong family,” he said.
In that same vein, it was the birth of his daughter that compelled him to go down a road of volunteering and community involvement that continues to this day.
While reflecting back on that day, Abbarno relates it to a conversation he had long ago with his father, who beckoned for him to return to Buffalo to live and work. Abbarno said he refused, telling his father there were no opportunities or reasons outside of family to return.
Looking at his newborn daughter, Abbarno said he resolved right away that he would work hard to make sure his children don’t face the same inability or unwillingness to return to their hometown as adults in the professional world.
“I decided it’s not going to be because I didn’t try,” he said.
Abbarno’s earliest volunteering efforts were with the Centralia College Foundation, the United Way of Lewis County and the Centralia Downtown Association, organizations that still benefit from his support or involvement today.
From there, the list of groups he supported began to grow exponentially.
“Volunteering is contagious once you open the door and get a taste of giving back,” he said.
His efforts include those broad and official in scope, such as his position as president of the Centralia College Foundation board of directors, to classic on-the-ground volunteering, such as his involvement with Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students), a program that puts positive male role models into schools to provide examples for students.
“It’s amazing when you go to a school and a little boy or little girl will immediately gravitate to you and grab your hand,” he said, adding that it can also mean that child lacks positive role models at home.
Abbarno’s dedication to youth extends to the Centralia Little League, Centralia Youth Soccer and youth basketball in the Hub City, where he and his wife volunteer time as coaches.
He said “the inconvenience in my life to coach is so minute” when compared to the benefits provided for children who otherwise might not have the opportunity to play organized sports if not for volunteers.
“What they want is just support,” he said.
A common theme in Abbarno’s volunteering is his desire to protect children from “falling through the cracks,” whether it’s in schools, sports or some other endeavor. Prior to Christmas, he recalled dressing as Santa and, along with other Forgotten Children’s Fund volunteers, delivering toys to area children.
At one home, which lacked even a front door and was filled with signs of deep poverty, Abbarno took the time to play a game of catch with a young boy who had just received a new football through the charity.
Fighting tears, Abbarno said he never wants to lose sight of why he and others dedicate so much time and effort to working toward the betterment of the community.
“This is my community and these people should not be falling through the cracks,” he said.
That’s one of the reasons why he’s such a supporter of the United Way of Lewis County, an organization that has set an ambitious goal of helping to lift 30 percent of impoverished Lewis County families out of poverty through a number of programs and initiatives.
Poverty, along with chronic flooding, are two of the largest challenges facing Lewis County, said Abbarno, who witnesses some of the most devastating cases of the impoverished among us through his volunteerism at The Hub City Mission.
“It can be daunting,” he said. “But just because it’s daunting doesn’t mean you back away from it.”
His volunteering efforts aren’t relegated to the Twin Cities. Abbarno also puts in time in East Lewis County, where he mentors in Morton and takes part in a special program aimed at teaching high school students about legislative matters, trials and advocacy. It culminates with a mock trial. Taken together, the program exposes students to many professions they would otherwise likely not learn about.
At the same time, he and the Centralia College Foundation recently held their first meeting at Centralia College East.
“I think we need to continue to open more doors for those students,” he said of East Lewis County.
He’s also committed his time to organizations such as the Rochester Community Closet.
“I don’t see the geopolitical borders that a lot of people see,” he said.
City Councilor and Radio Host
Along with his volunteer efforts and his duties at the law firm now named Althauser Rayan Abbarno, he’s now entering his fifth year as a member of the Centralia City Council. He entered his second term this year after running unopposed, a fact that didn’t lead to him taking it easy on the campaign trail.
“I still door-belled, I still went to the events,” he said. “I want to hear from the people who have complaints. There’s always room for improvement.”
Abbarno draws parallels between his work on the council and that of being a professional attorney.
As a lawyer, many of the people who come to him are facing some form of crisis. That’s similar to his position on the city council, where citizens often arrive with problems they believe only the councilors can solve.
He said he believes in listening, taking the concerns seriously and working to address them. Both as a professional and as a politician, it’s about getting from “Point A to Point B and find a solution,” he said.
“If you’re in it for the glory, you’re in it for the wrong reasons,” he said. “You have to do what you feel is best for the community.”
Abbarno has also for the past three years served as host of the KELA local morning talk show “Let’s Talk About It,” a community staple that provides him with still more opportunities to engage with residents, hear about their problems and build relationships.
He also uses it as a frequent platform for championing the causes of many of the same organizations he volunteers to support on a daily basis.
In order to fit all of this on his schedule — the volunteering, the job, the city council duties and a radio show, in addition to quality time with his family — Abbarno awakes by 3:30 a.m., hits the gym and then charts out a day he hopes will make for a better tomorrow.
His thoughts return to his own children when considering the future he hopes to help create for them. He said he and his wife teach them that they should always go where they are most needed, where their talents, intelligence and time can be put to the best use.
When they grow up, he wants them to have a different answer to provide when presented with an opportunity to return to their hometown or speak to the benefits of living there.
“I hope they come in here and improve this community or, if not, that they take their love for Centralia and Lewis County and share it wherever they go,” he said.
Eric Schwartz is regional executive editor for Lafromboise Communications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.