Theresa Gano delivers smiles along with the daily mail. Photo: Lisa Bryan, KP News

Longtime Longbranch rural mail carrier goes the distance.

Theresa Gano has been a rural mail carrier on the Key Peninsula for 23 years. What started out as a part-time job while tutoring students and raising her three daughters developed into a lifelong career committed to community building and connection.

When asked about the secret to her success, Gano replied, “I love my job, that’s a start.”

While delivering mail last month, she met a family that was biking along the road together. Unexpectedly, the family stopped to say “Hello Mail Lady!” 

While not everyone in Longbranch knows her by name, her friendly smiling face and upbeat attitude are well-known and loved in the neighborhood. 

Marcy Sparks, who retired from the postal service as a city carrier in Federal Way appreciates the value Gano brings as a rural carrier. She said city carriers and rural mail carriers are so different that each has their own union. 

Sparks said that while city carriers wear uniforms, walk or drive USPS vehicles and are paid hourly, rural carriers use their own vehicles, their wages are calculated differently and they aren’t compensated for any extra time it takes to complete their route. 

“That means every time Theresa goes down a long driveway to leave a package that doesn’t fit into a mailbox instead of leaving a notice in the box to pick it up at the post office, she’s not paid for the extra time it takes,” Sparks said. “If she stops to check on someone, that’s her personal time she’s giving up out of the kindness of her heart.” 

Longbranch resident Lynn Larson recalled the epic snow and ice storm of 2019. 

“I couldn’t believe it when she drove down my steep driveway in the snow,” Larson said. “Theresa said she was almost done; she had been delivering the mail for 12 hours, but wasn’t sure if she could deliver the next day because she was worried about getting stuck.”

A neighbor of the late Louise Ragains, a fiercely self-reliant widow who lived alone into her mid-90s, Larson said that Theresa not only noticed something was wrong, “but took her lunch breaks with Louise for a time – just to make sure the elderly woman at least ate lunch – while also keeping her company,” she said. 

“It’s so nice to work in my neighborhood and serve my friends and my neighbors,” Gano said.

Gano prides herself in doing good work. The love she has for her community remains constant but her time as a rural carrier has not been without challenges. 

“Without a doubt, the biggest challenge through my whole career would be the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.

As an essential worker during the pandemic, Gano and her colleagues have been working hard to deliver an increased number of parcels, including personal medications and groceries. “The volume is so huge it’s like Christmas every day,” she said.

Postal delivery routes and routines are usually expected to fluctuate with the seasons. But with the increased mail volume Gano has dealt with variable work schedules, longer hours, and as many as two to three additional trips a day to restock her vehicle.

“It’s been a lot of added pressure and stress,” she said, “but we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.” 

Despite the added demands, Gano has continued to prioritize community check-ins, especially among people with higher health risks or who are more isolated from the community.

“I have been really good about checking in on our elderly,” Gano said. If someone has not been getting their mail, Gano will stop by during her off-hours to make sure they are OK.

“You have to keep your eyes open and check in on them often,” she said.

Gano said she recently visited a customer she was concerned about. “I had my mask on and we stood nearly 20 feet apart.”

Although it was a brief encounter, they had the chance to ask each other how they were doing and shared a mask-covered smile. “I like to make people feel good and important, because they are,” Gano said.