Bonita “Bonnie” Henderson helped created an environment for students in the Senate page program that would ease their nerves when many felt intimidated by the Capitol atmosphere.
“I wanted to reassure them that the senators are human and they are human too,” Henderson said. “And maybe one day they would make a change in the world, just like them.”
Henderson, 71, retired last week after three decades of shepherding 7,500 teens through weeklong internships at the state Senate.
She began her part-time job as page supervisor in 1986. A stay-at-home mom to three teenagers, Henderson had been looking for a way to make some money. She had some friends who carpooled to the state Capitol to work as tour guides.
She inquired about becoming a guide, but no more openings were available. Instead, legislative staff offered her a job as supervisor of the Senate page program. She was hired on a verbal agreement.
“That’s how I got started — very causally,” Henderson said. “I’m sure I probably couldn’t get hired now. The process was much different back then.”
The page program gives students ages 14 through 17 the chance to work as helpers during legislative sessions. Pages perform tasks such as delivering mail and other documents on the Capitol campus. They also attend page school to learn about the legislative process and write a mock bill to propose to their peers.
Henderson has managed groups as small as 12 and as large as 42, according to a Senate resolution passed last week to honor her retirement.
“She is known as the page mother and she is widely acknowledged and appreciated for really living up to the great attributes of a wonderful mother, caring, mentoring, educating, instilling value, motivating our youth, helping to develop their talent, helping them have positive views of the future and encouraging them,” Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Olympia, said when she spoke on the Senate floor in support of the resolution.
The motherly role extended to keeping an eye on what students were up to during their week in Olympia. Henderson remembers a time when she found out a group of pages had gone for a tour at a local brewery.
“They heard they could get a free lunch so they did! Can you believe that?” Henderson said. “They only had soda though and also a stern talking to from me.”
Henderson enjoyed seeking out unique opportunities for the pages. One year after hearing the USS Olympia submarine was in town, Henderson arranged a tour for the pages.
“I think it is so important to expose kids to all types of different things,” she said. “Any time that I could find some place they could go or see I inquired about it.”
Several of Henderson’s former charges have gone on to work in government. Dan Roach, whose mother is longtime Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, served as a page in 1987 when he was in eighth grade. He is now the chairman of the Pierce County Council.
During his time as a page, Roach remembers being nervous at first.
“Especially in those first couple of days I remember Bonnie being so helpful,” Roach said. “She always had a smile on her face while still giving direction to the pages which made us feel more comfortable.”
Henderson, who lives in Tacoma’s South End, plans on taking some time off and focusing on her family. She said she will miss her connections with people at the Capitol.
“The senators tell me that they really like having the kids around,” Henderson said. “Sometimes, (the students) come with green hair and pierced noses, but they are the real world and it makes everything a little lighter around here.”