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John C. Little, Sr. Spirit Award


John C. Little, Sr. came to Seattle in 1947 from East St. Louis with his wife, Gertis. He went to work for the Seattle Water Department, but his heart always was in creating a better life for the young people of the community. His motto became, In order to improve the life of all people, you must improve the life of young people.

John was accorded many honors and awards during his lifetime. He received King Countys first Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award; the Washington State University Presidents Faculty Award for Community Service; the Salvation Armys Torchy Award for Service to the Community; the Bishop Foundation Youth Worker of the Year Award; and the City of Seattle Community Service Award. In 1994, he received Safecos Rudy Award for dedicated service to the community which included a $30,000 prize that he donated to the Seattle 4-H program.

John C. Little Sr.also served the community as a member of the Washington Human Rights Commission, and as a member of the Seattle Board of Park Commissioners from 1990 - 1997. In addition, John was very involved with his community through his church.

John believed that sports competition offered opportunities for youth development, and noticed that there was lack of such programs in the inner city. He worked with others to create the Central Area Youth Association in the 1960s. Always disguised by the success of its sports leagues, CAYA subsequently expanded its programs with a variety of offerings, including one-on-one tutoring of students and job training.

During the early 1970s Mr. Little, Sr. helped devise a youth conservation corps program in which inner city youth trained and worked in Olympic National Park. Little concluded that he had never seen a program that so profoundly affected the lives of its young participants, and from that day on John C. Little, Sr. searched for opportunities to expose young people to wilderness experiences and challenges.

Although he was supporting a wife and seven children, John returned to the University of Washington and earned a masters degree from the School of Social Work. He became director of the Mt. Baker Youth Service Bureau, which pioneered a demanding, realistic job training and placement program for inner-city youngsters.

John C. Little, Sr.s next and final career was as head of the Seattle 4-H program, which falls under the aegis of Washington State University and the King County Extension Program. While 4-H traditionally serviced children from farming communities, Mr. Little created a program to deliver 4-H activities to urban youth, many from minority families, and most from families of limited income. Food preparation, urban gardens, an urban fair, job training, performing arts, and outdoor recreation became the hallmarks of one of the most successful and innovative urban 4-H programs in America. Instead of fields, barns, and farmhouses, the program operated out of P-Patches, backyards, kitchens, community centers, schools, churches, and Seattle Center. Seattle 4-H became one of the nations largest and most successful 4-H programs, with an exceptional level of participation from minority communities.

This led to the creation of the remarkable 4-H Challenge Program at Franklin High School. John C. Little, Sr., who lived near the high school, told the coach that his football team had a very serious problem: it didnt play as a team. In fact, the coach had never had a winning season, and Franklin hadnt won a football championship in 37 years. Working together, Little and the coach designed a low-cost outward bound-type program. The boys got better acquainted, engaged in team building activities, faced challenges, took risks and set individual and group goals. From a 2-win, 6-loss season in 1985, they won the Metro football championship in 1986-and most years from then until now. The program was then expanded to include more and more of the Franklin student body, including every member of the freshman class. Skills in job development were gradually introduced. School attendance improved, dropout rates declined, discipline was better, and academic performance was enhanced.

In Johns seven years on the Board of Park Commissioners, he will be most remembered for his gentle judgment of how a proposed policy or new undertaking would be perceived by the people we serve, particularly by the young people. His sensitivity to the needs and the attitudes of youth belied his advanced years. If the Board wanted a thoughtful, wise opinion on a subject, it turned to John C. Little, Sr.

John C. Little, Sr. is survived by his wife, Mrs. Gertis Little, daughters Georgetta, Brenda, Sandra, and Yvonne, and sons John Jr., and Gregory, plus 17 grandchildren and 21 great grandchildren. His daughter Patricia passed away in 2012.

John C. Little, Sr. died in the company of his family on May 11, 1999, after a long struggle with diabetes. He was 69. Mr. Little was loved and respected by many, many people. He will truly be missed.

An annual award in his honor recognizes the Seattle Parks and Recreation employee who exemplifies John's service to youth and community.

Past recipients:

  • Willie Rodgers
  • Pat Warberg
  • Elaine Dunn
  • Don Ganchorre
  • Dennis Cook, Tom Ostrom, Isiah Anderson, Patti Petesch, Folasa Titialii, Royal-Alley Barnes, Ron Mirabueno, Diane Jones, and Dave Gilbertson
Update February 17, 2015

John C. Little
John C. Little, Sr.

2014 Award Recipient

Teen Recreation Leader Jean Lee receives 2014 John C. Little, Sr. Spirit Award.

At the Feb. 12 Board of Park Commissioners meeting, the 2014 John C. Little, Sr. Spirit Award was presented to Seattle Parks and Recreation employee Jean Lee for her steadfast commitment to improving the lives of young people in the community.

John C. Little, Sr. served the community as a member of the Seattle Board of Park Commissioners from 1990-1997 and was known for his careful consideration of how proposed policies would affect youth. His motto was, “In order to improve the life of all people, you must improve the life of young people.” Jean demonstrates that motto every day in her interaction with teens both in her role as a Teen Recreation Leader at Jefferson Park and outside of work.
Jean Lee, bottom left, with her Mock Trial teens.

Jean’s nomination applications sung her praises and described the many ways and reasons she is so deserving of the award.

Jean Lee cares about young people. Jean is the person that teens look for at Jefferson Community Center, wrote one nominator. She is a mentor to these kids and they, in turn, look up to her for guidance, volunteer work and job experience. She always takes time to listen to their concerns and makes them feel welcome and appreciated.

Examples abound of how Jean takes the extra step to help these young people. Jean will take her own time to help troubled youth, meeting them at a coffee shop or a restaurant in the International District to listen and try to help them with community resources she knows about. Jean wants to see young people succeed in life and has involved them in volunteering, working around the center and in the programs that she has developed. Many of these kids have gone on to college and some work in jobs that give back to the community, including several that work for the department or the Associated Recreation Council.

Jean started out as a high school intern more than 25 years ago at Jefferson Community Center. She has worked as a Recreation Attendant, Summer Playground Leader and Teen Recreation Leader with the department.

Through her prolific grant writing and creative programming, Jean has provided opportunities for teens to be engaged in environmental stewardship, arts and culture, leadership, civic engagement and sports. Among the programs Jean initiated are Teens Against Tobacco Use (TATU) and the Mock Trial Program. Both of these programs get teens out of their comfort zones and teach them to communicate their ideas to others. Jean had partnered with Seattle University Law students and local judges to produce the Mock Trial Program. The students and judges mentor the teens all the way through a simulated trial in a downtown courtroom. Her program was recognized in The Seattle Times and other local papers.

Jean has also recruited many teen volunteers through the Key Clubs at Franklin and Cleveland high schools. The volunteers have helped at the special events at Jefferson such as the Beacon Hill Festival, Summer Movies in the Park, the Haunted House and Halloween Carnival, Spring Egg Hunts and Pancake Breakfast, Spring Clean on Beacon Hill, Metro Bus shelter art work, the Urban Forest on Beacon Hill and many more.

Outside the department, Jean has taken vacation time to volunteer with teens at a summer program at the University of Washington called the Accounting Career Awareness Program.

This is the 14th year that Seattle Parks and Recreation has awarded the John C. Little, Sr. Spirit Award. Past recipients have included Pat Warberg, Elaine Dunn, Don Ganchorre, Dennis Cook, Tom Ostrom, Isiah Anderson, Patti Petesch, Folasa Titialii, Jr., Royal Alley-Barnes, Ron Mirabueno and Willie Rogers.

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