When Hallie Hemmingsen, 23, first started working at the Max Higbee Center, which provides recreational and educational activities for developmentally disabled teens and adults, she had misconceptions about what the people she would be working with were really like.
"I had this idea they were fragile," Hemmingsen says. "But they're way more independent than anyone gives them credit for."
In fact, many of the center's members live alone. Hemmingsen, now the center's executive director, says most of the nonprofit's activities are based on independence, so despite the limitations someone may have, they can still participate.
Members enjoy a wide variety of programming offered by the center, including crafts, dances, games, karaoke and various exercise and lifestyle classes throughout the month.
The center runs on a drop-in basis, so the group of participants changes from day to day.
"It's a very safe, fun environment where our members can be exactly who they are," Hemmingsen says.
One of the center's popular classes, cooking at the Community Food Co-Op, is offered once a month. The Co-Op provides its kitchen space for the lesson and the Max Higbee Center provides adaptive recipes that show directions in pictures instead of words, so all participants can get involved in cooking the meal.
Most cooking lessons have a focus on nutrition as well as the skills involved in making the meal. Hemmingsen says participants recently made green smoothies using strawberries, bananas and kale.
"One guy caught on, and he was like 'I don't want salad in my smoothies. Absolutely not,'" Hemmingsen says.
Hemmingsen and her crew of volunteers convinced him to try just a taste and he wound up running to his mom's car at the end of the night saying, "I love salad smoothies!"
Max Higbee, who was a professor at the Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University, founded the drop-in program in 1985. It wasn't until January 2012, however, that the center got its own building on Bay Street. Until that point, the Max Higbee Center had operated out of the Bellingham Senior Activity Center, with its Community Access Program always jumping from location to location and its main office located in the Herald Building.
Hemmingsen says having the office and activity center in the same place has been a tremendous help, allowing the staff to focus more energy on improving the center's programming.
The center will stay at its location at 1210 Bay St. until its lease is up in 2013. At that point, the staff will once again look for an affordable space to house the program.
The center is one of only a few programs in the area that offers regular activities for developmentally disabled community members on a drop-in basis. They share their offices with another, Marianne's House, which offers programming on Mondays and Fridays.
As a nonprofit, most of Max Higbee Center's funding comes from grants and fundraising events, such as April Brews Day.
This summer Jenny Martin, who served as co-director with Hemmingsen from January to July, was able to help raise money to buy two adaptive bicycles with the fundraiser Pennies For Bikes. Martin and a friend biked from Canada to Mexico and raised $3,500 for the bikes, which members had asked the center to provide. Hemmingsen says the center will purchase the bikes this spring.
Hemmingsen started working at Max Higbee Center while earning a degree in human services at WWU. She interned at the center for a year before getting a paid position. Normally, human services majors are expected to complete internships at three different places, but Hemmingsen loved the center so much, she petitioned to do all three internships there.
Hemmingsen took over as co-director of the center with Martin in January and was named executive director in July.
She says the hardest part of her job is seeing how people in the community can negatively affect those with developmental disabilities.
"When our society limits them, or when people on busses or in the community give them a hard time, that's so frustrating, because for us it's so clear to see that they're just these incredible people who happen to have disabilities," Hemmingsen says.
One of the staff's missions is to eliminate the use of the "r-word." There is a zero-tolerance policy at the center, and most volunteers and staff have taken that policy to their friend groups and family members.
The center's members recently made a video in response to the misconceptions society has about developmentally disabled people. The video starts with phrases such as "I am not stupid," and "I am not weak," and ends with members saying things that do define them, like "I am a good knitter," and "I live alone."
"I wish we could show that to everyone," Hemmingsen says. "Max Higbee Center is a life-changing place, not just for members, but for our staff. I think the members being able to self-advocate by just saying who they are is great."
The video should be available at maxhigbee.org this spring.
The Bellingham Herald salutes Whatcom County people who help make our community a great place to live with our annual Ten Who Cared series. If you have a suggestion for someone we should salute next year, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.