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A Generous Gift | Escapee Supports Public Lands

By Rene Agredano #103274
Photos by Rita Poe #95664 and Bill Zingheim

Managing the busy Evergreen COHO SKP Co-Op Park in Chimacum, Washington, is never dull. But, after two years as the park’s business manager, Nancy Zingheim thought she knew what to expect each day between eight and four. Nothing, however, could have prepared her for the extraordinary moment in September 2015, when Rita Poe #95664 walked in with a most unusual request. She wanted to know if Nancy would carry out her dying wishes.

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I remember telling her that it was okay, and that we would talk about it when she felt better as I could tell she was not feeling well,” says Nancy. “Since she was such a quiet individual and didn’t talk a lot, it never dawned on me that she had cancer until about two weeks later.”

The 66-year-old Escapees member had only lived in the park for a few months. She was often seen walking her dog, Iggy, around the park, but she kept to herself and preferred the company of pets over people. None of the residents knew what a generous heart and what exceptional photography talents this tall, quiet woman possessed, but Nancy was about to find out. When Rita asked for help, she revealed that she was alone in the end stages of cancer and didn’t have long to live. After a more difficult conversation, Nancy agreed to the request. Not until several weeks later did she learn that it meant distributing nearly $800,000 of Rita’s money to eight national wildlife refuges, two state parks, one national park and the World Birding Center in Texas.

Rita’s health deteriorated in a few weeks, and through it all she remained most concerned about her pets’ well-being. As an animal lover, too, Nancy understood why. “In the summer months, I keep my side door open and would see her and Iggy outside in the sunshine doing various things. Wherever Rita went, Iggy was right with her,” recalls Nancy. To comfort Rita, she immediately offered to help Iggy find a permanent, loving home. “I went home and mentioned it to my husband and, since we were dog-less at the time, he said he would love to have the dog, sight unseen,” she says.

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Only a few park residents knew about Rita’s health situation, but each of them chipped in to make her last days comfortable. Some arranged to take out garbage while others refilled her propane bottles as needed. Sunshine, the cat, went to live with Nancy’s friend, Penny. Not once did Rita reveal what was in her will. Then, just two months after she walked into Nancy’s life, she was gone. She died in the company of two compassionate women, knowing that her final wishes would be carried out.

A few weeks later, Nancy got the shock of her life, when she read Rita’s will and discovered the magnanimity of the situation. In her hands, she held a financial legacy that would help generations of people better appreciate wild places in North America. But before she distributed a single dollar, the skillful business manager had to know that Rita’s money would be wisely spent. For the next several months, Nancy thoroughly investigated every location named in the will. “I wanted to make sure that the funds were going to be used for the purpose for which they were intended,” says Nancy. She interviewed managers, pored over financial statements and made every effort to understand the long-term uses and investment methods for Rita’s gifts.

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She donated Rita’s Airstream to a feline rescue group and took time to piece together Rita’s life story. With only a few old documents, some photographs and an expired driver license, Nancy discovered a woman with a lifelong dedication to animals, photography and caring for others as a nurse in Southern California. “As near as I can tell, when Rita’s parents passed away, they left their estate to her and her brother, Terry. Terry was the executor, and he gave Rita a portion of the money, which I believe started her on her eight-year journey,” explains Nancy.

Between the ages of 58 and 66, Rita became an Escapees member and traveled solo around the West and into Canada. But instead of joining social hours and BoFs, she grew her photography skills and allowed her camera to become her voice. From Tulelake National Wildlife Refuge in California to the Laguna Atascosta National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, this solo traveler’s exceptional work captured hundreds of tranquil scenes in places where birds, mammals and other species find respite from civilization.
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Rita’s wildlife scenes were so compelling that Nancy felt called to visit places named in her will. In summer 2016, Nancy took two weeks off from her job to visit some of the refuges near home. She hit the road in Rita’s truck, while her husband stayed behind to care for their two elderly cats and Iggy. Everywhere she went, wildlife officials happily met with her to explain how Rita’s money would be invested. When the meetings were over, Nancy felt confident that the money would not get wasted.

The entire journey was life-changing for a woman who didn’t even know wildlife refuges existed before Rita pulled into the park. Nancy’s 4,000-mile journey was over, but now she understood why Rita wanted others to experience the public lands she loved most. “What wonderful places these refuges are for all the animals, birds and fish. They know this is one of the few stops where they were safe and could get some rest on their long journeys,” she explains. “It is a wonderful way for both adults and children to see animals and birds they may never have seen before in their own environments. I could see Rita sitting in a blind, photographing birds and animals and not worrying about being seen or them seeing her.”

Today the money is doing good work at 12 great destinations every RVer should experience. “Though Rita’s life came to a close, her legacy will live on for generations, thanks to her final act of astonishing generosity,” writes Brent Lawrence, Public Affairs Specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. From new trees for roosting birds to an observation lookout and more, the improvements couldn’t happen without Rita’s kindness and Nancy Zingheim’s equally extraordinary dedication to a member of the Escapees community.

Rene Agredano has been full-time RVing since 2007 with her husband, Jim, and their dog, Wyatt. They love teaching others how to hit the road before retirement at LiveWorkDream.com.

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