Whatcom Magazine

Boys and Girls Clubs working together in Whatcom County

Heather Powell, the executive director of Boys & Girls Clubs of Whatcom County, jokes with kids over veggie burgers during the after-school program at the Bellingham club on Feb. 27, 2016.
Heather Powell, the executive director of Boys & Girls Clubs of Whatcom County, jokes with kids over veggie burgers during the after-school program at the Bellingham club on Feb. 27, 2016. For The Bellingham Herald

When Heather Powell arrived at Boys and Girls Clubs of Whatcom County in October 2013, the 41-year-old executive director knew things had to change.

The four clubs in Bellingham, Blaine, Ferndale, and Lynden were operating as separate entities, each with their own resources and programs. Inconsistencies were easy to spot.

Powell’s first task was to standardize the clubs’ offerings and run the organization as a single entity.

We’re giving kids new skills and new learning opportunities so that they’re constantly learning, but they don’t necessarily see it as being school after school.

Heather Powell, executive director

“We took the best of what we were offering in each clubhouse and figured out how to make it transferable to the other clubhouses,” says Powell, a former school teacher with expertise in organizational development. “We were also able to share our resources, something that hadn’t happened previously. Now, for example, we share our Lego robotics kits, and when we purchase a technology license, we purchase it for all the clubs.”

Powell is passionate about education, and considers it key to children’s success. Over the past two years, she has invested heavily in educational programming , ensuring that everything young club members do is fun, but with a purpose.

“We’re giving kids new skills and new learning opportunities so that they’re constantly learning,” Powell says, “but they don’t necessarily see it as being school after school.”

It’s our duty to feed the kids quality and quantity, which means balanced meals with healthy, low-fat proteins, fruit and vegetables. They’re things I’d put on my table for my family.

Heather Powell, executive director

The clubs’ meal program also has changed. In 2013, kids got a meal and snack, the quality of which was “acceptable,” she says.

But Powell wanted better, so Brianna Sullivan was hired to revamp the program. Now, more than 80 percent of the food is local and in season.

“It’s our duty to feed the kids quality and quantity, which means balanced meals with healthy, low-fat proteins, fruit and vegetables,” Powell says. “They’re things I’d put on my table for my family.”

Initially, kids wanted their pizza and hot dogs back. That has changed.

“Today, they get excited about sesame broccoli chicken salad and sweet potato burritos, dishes freshly prepared by volunteers in the clubs’ Bellingham kitchen,” Powell says. “We’re educating them why it’s important to consume this kind of food, and we no longer give them anything packaged.”

After-school transportation to the clubs remains a challenge, Powell says, with transportation being the biggest barrier preventing more kids from participating in club programs. While Ferndale School District provides transportation from all of its schools to the clubhouse, the same isn’t true for the other clubs.

“We know that there are a lot of kids in the east county, in places like Nooksack, Kendall, Maple Falls, and Mount Baker, that would benefit from club programming, so we’re trying to be strategic about bringing programming or a club to them,” Powell says.

By the numbers

Boys and Girls Clubs of Whatcom County Boys has:

1,500 volunteers

480 kids who use the clubs on an average weekday

6,083 members in 2015

14 full-time and 30 part-time staff

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