Whatcom district resource offices help families prepare ‘whole child’ for school

It’s not always just school supplies that a student needs to be successful. For some students in Whatcom County schools, a safe place to live, a ride to a doctor’s appointment, or a helping hand for their mother to find her way out of domestic abuse might make the difference in more than just their academic record.

That’s the basis for the family resource officers in each of Whatcom County’s seven school districts. Steve Morse, a former elementary school principal in Bellingham, now heads up the district’s Family Resource Center, which not only distributes school supplies, but also connects families with social service programs and even offers a computer for parents who are looking for work or need to fill out online signups for county programs. Family service coordinators wear many hats in their jobs and typically also work with homeless students and organize school supply donations and vouchers for school clothes to those who need it the most.

Morse said the Family Resource Center in Bellingham, housed in a portable building behind Carl Cozier Elementary School, helps fulfill the promise the district’s school board makes when they talk about concern for the “whole child.”

“It’s not just math and reading,” Morse said. “The research is very clear that if you have outside challenges; if you do not have something as simple as food, it’s very tough for a kid to be successful at school.”

The tasks of family resource coordinators change each day. While one day a coordinator might connect a student with free or discounted counseling services, the next they will drive the student and a family member to Bellingham for an eye exam or arrange for students in need to get free dental exams offered through donation. On another day, they will connect a family with a food pantry or visit a family facing a crisis, helping them obtain services from the Opportunity Council, which provides services for low-income families throughout Whatcom County.

“Our main job is linking families with what they need,” said Becky Robertson, family resource coordinator with Nooksack Valley School District. Sometimes they work with families in school, and other times they go to a student’s home if a family does not have a way to get to the school or even a working phone to call the school themselves. Occasionally a teacher or community member steps in, like a teacher in the Meridian School District who recently purchased gym clothes for a student after the district’s family resource specialist told them a student’s family couldn’t afford the clothing.

“We have a generous community,” said Sheree Johnston, family resource specialist for Meridian School District.

In Whatcom County’s rural school districts, families without transportation often need transportation into Bellingham for services or even just a ride to a parent-teacher conference. “Sometimes just getting a child to a doctor is difficult,” said Blaine Family Service Coordinator Jessie Burton. “It seems easy because it’s on the freeway, but 20 miles is still 20 miles you can’t reach when you don’t have a car.”

Susan Gribbin, one of three family community coordinators in Ferndale School District, said there are many programs in Whatcom County to aid families in need, but sometimes it takes persistence for families to accept help.

“We want families to feel like they matter,” Gribbin said.