One big happy family

CWU employee Anna Cairns finds a new home and family here in Ellensburg

Sarah Quartararo, Scene Writer

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In addition to running the Residence Life (Reslife) office with scientific precision and order, Anna Cairns has another talent: finding a family wherever she goes.

Cairns was born in Seoul, South Korea, and grew up in Yakima before moving to Seattle and, later, Ellensburg.

She was brought to the United States with a group of infants and adopted when she was three months old. But that wasn’t the end of the story for the adoptees—their new families kept in touch. In fact, the group celebrated Christmas together for years and Cairns is still in touch with some of the adoptees from her group.

“We all still are friends. Only one person ended up being crazy,” Cairns says with a laugh.

Cairns’ place at Central

Cairns’ office is the picture of order. Mail shipments are efficiently piled into a makeshift mountain in the package room and signed off on before they’re ordered on the shelves. Posters are labelled, rubber-banded and distributed to mailboxes.

She gives her full attention to anyone who speaks to her, swiveling in her chair to look up at her taller coworkers whenever one strides into the room.

Reslife is constantly in motion. Someone steps out of the conference room and looks for a book that, as it turns out, only Cairns can find. A few minutes later someone else sticks their head out and asks Cairns to arrange meetings.

Cairns calls new hires and organizes interviews. She notifies HR about the incoming paperwork.

She jogs to the back of the mail room and pinpoints a student employee.

“Wanna do some filing?” Cairns asks with sarcastic enthusiasm, thumping down a three-inch-tall stack of paper, the tailfin of her full-sleeve tattoo peeking out from the cuff of her sleeve.

Coffee & family

Cairns ended up in Seattle in pursuit of a fairytale ending.

“I thought I fell in love,” Cairns said.

But the relationship didn’t work out. Her significant other left before Cairns had started classes, found a job or even bought furniture.

“I didn’t even have a bed… literally starting with nothing,” Cairns said.

She wandered into Zoka Coffee Roaster & Tea Co in the University Village area.

“I told them I would do anything to work for them,” Cairns said. She spent the next three months cleaning the coffee shop. Eventually, Cairns became a manager.

“We created a family out of our store,” Cairns said. “A lot of us were away from our families.”

One day a Korean woman strolled into Zoka. The woman bonded with Cairns and ended up taking some paperwork back to Korea to help Cairns track down her biological family.

“I wanted to find my bio mom so bad,” Cairns recalled.

In 1994, a Presbyterian Church took Cairns’ family and four other families to Korea, where the children had been born, and they stayed for three weeks.

The woman who had gone back to Korea with Cairns’ records struggled with the search because a lot of documents were inaccurate at the time of Cairns’ birth. Eventually authorization stamps on the paperwork led the woman to the police station where Cairns had been abandoned as an infant.

“Most of my childhood I spent wondering where my biological mom was,” Cairns said. “Knowing it’s pretty much impossible gave some closure.”

The move to Ellensburg

Cairns moved from Seattle to Ellensburg after a bad winter when it seemed like the pass was closed more often than not—separating Cairns from her girlfriend who lived in Ellensburg.

Cairns met her girlfriend online. They ended up emailing back and forth. They agreed that they’d see each other exclusively, and Cairns made the drive to Ellensburg for their first in-person meeting.

They met at Starlight Lounge for their first date.

“I told her ‘I’m going to marry you someday,’” Cairns said.

That date led to their first year of commuting to see each other, alternating who travelled every weekend.

Cairns found her final family and the two now live together; between them they have three children. Cairns had her daughter when she was 19, and her girlfriend has two children; one 19 and one 17 years old. The two run their house with the same order that Cairns runs Reslife.

“We try to do everything on the weekend – laundry, cleaning,” Cairns said. “You kind of have to or it doesn’t work very well… I pre-pack Chloe’s lunch at nighttime.”

And there will be no pets in their household. “Three kids is more than enough,” Cairns said. “It’s hard enough for me to remember to pack my own lunch, let alone feed a fish.”

Cairns starts her day coming into the office before classes, sometimes logging early hours before the office is open on busier days. She checks her email, checks in with her superiors, and delegates tasks to student employees.

Her organizational superpower? Sticky notes. They line her computer screen, the edge of the desks, down the keyboard and the back of the counter. Every time a task is done, she pulls the note from its perch and tosses it in the garbage with satisfaction.

“The team of people I work with, the relationships, the women in housing have really been mentors to me,” Cairns said.

Home in housing

The housing department has become another family for Anna. Venetta Miller, a financial specialist at Central, has become one of Cairns’ friends at Central.

“Venetta especially has encouraged me to continue my education,” Cairns said. “For the last year or so we go to the Wellness Hour to work out, and she’s been a good support for me in a lot of ways and sometimes people don’t always get to see that.”

Cairns graduated from Central with an interdisciplinary studies in social sciences degree last spring.

Cairns will have worked in the ResLife office for two years at the end of March.

“In this job I’m able to help people,” Cairns said.

In a little less than an hour, more than 15 people come through Cairns’ office. Two stop to talk and five stop with questions: the computers aren’t working, there’s a question about mail delivery, where should the posters go? Some people just stop to chat.

Even while being interviewed for this story, one of her taller coworkers comes over and drapes himself over the front of the counter, arms spread out in front of him.

“Hey Anna,” he says before launching into an energetic story.

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One big happy family