Bellingham School Board member and retired pediatrician Dr. Ken Gass has dedicated the last 36 years of his life to working with Whatcom County's youngest residents.
"I really enjoy working with children," he says. "I enjoy relating with them. They're very forthright and honest."
Gass, who is originally from a small town in Indiana, has a long history of supporting families and children in need, even when that meant shaking things up to help communities that weren't getting necessary attention from other programs.
When he studied at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, Gass volunteered in a community clinic run by the Puerto Rican gang the Young Lords. He also spent time working with the Black Panthers. Neither group was receiving the care they needed from "the establishment," Gass says, so they took aggressive approaches to providing services like free lunches and clothing to their own communities.
"It was frightening, but they also protected me," he says. "Someone tried to start my car on fire, but the neighborhood gang said, 'No, that's Dr. Gass. Don't do that.'"
After his residency at Seattle Children's hospital, Gass made his way to Bellingham in 1977 with his wife, Francie, and practiced pediatrics until June 2012.
Gass joined the school board in 1998 and got his first glimpse inside the school system.
"I'd been curious," Gass says. "I didn't understand or appreciate a lot when I'd talk to teachers on the phone about kids."
Gass had frequently lobbied for medical needs, but says he did not fully understand how schools balance those needs with educational needs and budgetary limitations.
During his time on the school board, Gass says he has seen Bellingham residents consistently vote to pass school bonds, including the recent $160 million bond, which was the largest the district had ever proposed.
As a long-term health care provider, and more recently as a school board member, Gass says he has seen a need in Whatcom County for integrated services that help intervene in children's health care early on. Early intervention can help detect developmental issues or delays and assist families in getting the care they need so their child can better succeed once they get to school, he says.
"If you don't take care of the young developing brain, that child can have permanent brain damage," Gass says. "We have a community that cares about that."
Gass recently worked with a team of registered nurses and other medical professionals to help start Whatcom Taking Action, a single entry access point for families, that helps guide parents to the services they might need to diagnose issues with their child.
"Our vision is to create a seamless system for children and their families," he says. "Even though we don't have one big building with all these services, we'll provide navigation so they know where to go next."
If children receive early intervention, they are set up for better educational experiences, which can also save schools money in the long run, Gass says.
"How can we own this as a community and help kids be better prepared to learn?" he asks.
With Whatcom Taking Action, Gass says he feels he can walk out of his office, step into this program and really feel like he's accomplishing something.
The hard part for Whatcom Taking Action is finding the funding to run a sustainable program that is more than just a phone number, Gass says.
"We want everyone in the community who's dealing with young kids to be aware of normal development and responding when it's not," he says. "You've got to follow up, but none of that follow up is paid for."
Gass says nurse practitioners Margaret John and Melanie Hartley are the heart and soul of the program. The team of three is working to find funding from local sources like the Whatcom Community Foundation, which has already given the project development grants.
"If we could be a model for other areas, maybe we could get a federal grant," he says.
For now, Gass is working away at a nine-month LEND (Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities) fellowship at the University of Washington to gain skills that will help in creating a stronger program at Whatcom Taking Action.
Contact Samantha Wohlfeil at email@example.com or 360-756-2803.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
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 an organization we should salute next year, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.