Blessie Goco and Ina Burke managed risk, rewards on paths to careers at Saltchuk, Foss
By Hilary Reeves
On July 4, 1993, Ina Burke watched her mother become an American citizen. She was five years old.
“No one would take care of Ina that day, so I had to take her with me while I took the oath,” laughed Blessie Goco, a risk manager at Saltchuk’s Seattle headquarters.
“I don’t remember it, but she said I talked a lot during the ceremony, which isn’t surprising,” Ina echoed.
Blessie is not Ina’s biological mother, but their story – one of familial responsibility, hard work, and ‘keeping the faith’ – forever binds them to one another, weaving their lives together as tightly as in any traditional maternal relationship.
Blessie’s story began in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. She was born into an affluent family there, the third-born of six children, the eldest daughter. Her eldest brother, who after five years in the U.S. Navy was issued a green card, immediately “sponsored” Blessie’s mother, who soon left for the United States. She in turn sponsored her five children, and they came – but not at the same time. After graduating on a full academic scholarship from Ateneo de Manila University, a Jesuit university in Manila, and spending four years as an algebra teacher, Blessie was the last to make the trip.
“I wanted to come to the United States,” she said. “I wanted to be with my family.”
Blessie’s family had settled in San Mateo, Calif. When she arrived in June of 1987, her youngest sister had just graduated from high school – and was about to give birth to a baby: Ina.
“I told my sister, ‘You’re so young. Why don’t you go back to school and I will raise Ina,'” Blessie said.
It wasn’t Blessie’s first time helping a younger sister. Another of her siblings, who became pregnant in California while Blessie was still teaching in Manila, could not balance married life, a job and a child, and sent her son back to the Philippines for Blessie to raise. Now Blessie, two-week-old Ina, and five-year-old Christopher – with the help of Blessie’s “Aunt Mary,” a family friend and guardian who came with her from the Philippines – were on their own in a foreign land.
“Coming here to the United States, the difficult part is you cannot just bring all your professional credentials with you,” Blessie explained. “So I had to start right from the bottom. I started odd jobs: one job, two jobs, three jobs at a time.”
Blessie’s mother moved from California to a house she owned in Seabeck, Wash., near Bremerton. After living in California for four years, Blessie, Christopher, Ina, and Aunt Mary moved with her. For the second time, Blessie had to start over.
“I thought that maybe I needed to re-educate myself,” Blessie explained. “Also, we’re devout Catholics, and I wanted to put (Christopher and Ina) into Catholic schools, so it was important that I earn enough money. I strongly believe that a good education empowers an individual.”
Blessie soon discovered that Central Washington University would credit her degree from the Jesuit University in Manila, and she decided to go for a second degree. In 1993, she moved herself, the two children and Aunt Mary to Renton, Wash. Blessie began attending classes through Central Washington University. The goals: keep Christopher and Ina in Catholic schools and become a Certified Public Accountant.
“I wanted to get back to a professional level, and I wanted them to continue to attend Catholic schools; I was in a hurry to become a CPA,” Blessie said. “I already had a background teaching Algebra, and I wanted something to do with numbers and accounting. I went to school full-time and worked part-time jobs.”
Blessie attended college for three years. Most days started after dropping Christopher and Ina off at school and heading for her own campus. She took as many credits as possible at one time, because she could do so at a flat rate.
“Anything over 10 units was the same price,” she explained. “So I would take on as many units as possible over the 10, and that would take up my entire day.”
After school, which ended at 2 p.m., Blessie worked another job handling a lockbox while the children participated in after-school activities. On weekends, she worked at K-Mart. And at night, between midnight and 8 a.m., she worked as a computer operator. She kept it up until she graduated. She would do all of her school work while working as a computer operator.
“I started getting green from no sleep,” Blessie said. “Sometimes it’s hard to share these things, because it just feels so unbelievable. For us to get some time together during those years, I would take them with me to my computer job on Friday nights and they would sleep there while I worked.”
Blessie graduated in 1997 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting from Central Washington University. She was finally qualified to take the CPA examination just as Christopher graduated from middle school at St. Anthony in Renton and enrolled in Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien, Wash. She passed the test and considered going into teaching, but needed a good salary to get Christopher and Ina through high school.
After completing her degree, Blessie joined a small CPA firm in Seattle.
“Because it was a small accounting firm, I benefited a lot from the experience,” she explained. “I handled all types of accounting work: compilation of financial statements, tax-related work, new business accounting set up, audit engagement, etc. However, I didn’t like the concept of billable hours. I never had the heart to bill clients so much for the little work I did.”
Blessie’s first job after completing the 2000 billable hours she needed to get her CPA license was as a corporate tax accountant for Foss Environmental (Services – a former subsidiary of Saltchuk).
“I found the job from the newspaper, and one of my co-workers had said that Foss was an old Seattle company and that it was such an excellent company to work for,” she said. “Foss Environmental was going through a state audit and, luckily, I was able to get in. It was my first exposure to the corporate world.”
For the first time since she arrived in the United States, Blessie had health insurance.
“We were so lucky that when we would establish a relationship with a doctor and a dentist for (the children) when they were growing up; they would let me pay in installments,” she explained. “We would have a credit build-up, and then one would use it up. We didn’t have to do that anymore.”
Blessie eventually became a corporate financial manager and then an interim controller, joining Mr. Steve Stevenson at Saltchuk in 2003 when Foss Environmental was sold. She and Stevenson had worked together for many hours dealing with the state audit, and had developed an excellent working rapport. They continued working together while at Saltchuk until he passed away in 2011. Blessie started out at Saltchuk as a financial analyst and corporate accountant while assisting in corporate tax returns. She then joined Saltchuk’s risk management team in 2007.
“It’s all about God’s blessings now. I truly am grateful to be working for the Saltchuk family of companies.”
Blessie is now the system administrator for Saltchuk’s risk management information system and also works as the full-charge CPA/accountant for the family LLCs.
“One thing I really appreciate is the trust and confidence they have in me,” she said. “That means a lot.”
In addition to her full-time work at Saltchuk, Blessie works as a part-time college professor and frequently volunteers her time preparing tax returns, mostly for the elderly. She began pursuing her MBA from the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business in 2005 and graduated in 2008. She is currently working on completing her designation as an Associate in Risk Management.
Ina, meanwhile, graduated high school with honors from Holy Names Academy in Seattle in 2007. She saw her biological mother, whom she calls “Mommy,” frequently growing up, as well as her siblings – they still live in California. While Ina was in college, she worked as a cast member at Disneyland during her school breaks and she stayed with them. She remembers her early years with Blessie, whom she calls “Mama,” and doesn’t think of as an aunt, but as a tireless worker, always encouraging her to participate in everything her school had to offer.
“She would sew the costumes for the school plays while she was working her night job,” Ina said. “She bought me a saxophone. I took 13 years of tap dance. She made me take piano lessons, had me joined all the musical plays at school, and always came to watch my soccer and volleyball games.”
There were times growing up when Blessie took Ina to her job at Foss Environmental, letting her file and shred. Ina learned to drive in the parking lot. Perhaps it’s no surprise that several years after she graduated from the University of Washington with a double BA in Law, Societies and Justice, and Interdisciplinary Visual Arts, she found her way back to Foss.
“After graduating in 2011, I worked for the former Washington Supreme Court Justice, Bobbe Bridge at her nonprofit, the Center for Children and Youth Justice. Our mission was dedicated to changing government programs to improve the lives of children in foster care and the juvenile justice system,” Ina said. “I supported the mission but I was not passionate about what I was doing.”
She joined Foss Maritime in 2013 as a Human Resources intern, and now spends the majority of her time handling hull and machinery (h&m) claims. She also recently started an associate’s degree in Marine Insurance Management. Some of her coworkers, who came from Foss Environmental, remember her as “Blessie’s kid.”
“I fell in love with claims – there is something new every day” she said. “I enjoy learning about the marine industry, transportation, and our vessels. I wish I could get on our tugs a lot more.” Currently, Ina works as the hull and machinery claims adjuster, which falls under the same department as Blessie: the risk management department.
Ina is following in Blessie’s footsteps in more ways than one, helping build up savings that allowed her younger sister, Camille, to move to Washington and attend Holy Names Academy. She hopes to attend law school in the future.
“If (Blessie) can do it, there is no excuse,” Ina said. “We’ve seen all the sacrifices she has made for us. My brother and I say “if Mama can do it, we can.”
“Every little thing I appreciate now,” Blessie said.
“Like school or office supplies,” Ina laughed. “We could never afford school supplies growing up and now I have supplies in every color.”
And though she’ll likely never feel like she’s “made it,” Blessie said she can look back on her life with pride.
“I came here to a foreign land, and I survived. I believe that if you want to make it, with God’s help, you will make it.”