When you walk into the gabled house of the Health Support Center, it has the homey feel of a living room, one that’s busy with bulletin boards and with card tables covered with fliers from dozens of nonprofit groups in Whatcom County.
In the middle of the room, a large table and comfortable chairs provide one of the meeting places for the 19 nonprofits that are members of the center. The organization also mentors an average of five groups a year.
Member groups include NAMI Whatcom (National Alliance on Mental Illness), a multiple sclerosis support group, and United Blind of Whatcom County.
“We are like a home, a family of groups,” says Kelle Rankin-Suntor, board president.
The center offers free help to nonprofits that focus on health and wellness. The center provides meeting space; computers, software and printing; and phones, and other services. Last year, 593 meetings were held at the center’s two houses.
The center also acts as a clearinghouse for anyone seeking local health and wellness groups, regardless whether they are a member group, and helps people who are forming support groups for friends or family members with a serious illness.
The center was founded in 1989 when three groups — Alzheimer Society of Washington, The Arc of Whatcom County, and Neurofibromatosis Advocate — pooled their resources. The unusual collaboration has thrived, even as the roster of member groups has changed.
The three original groups now have their own spaces. Most of the groups that have “graduated” to their own space remain associate members of the center.
That model of sharing resources has attracted interest from around the world, from places as distant as Russia and New Zealand.
Executive Director DeLynn Lindberg estimated it would cost each member group about $40,000 a year for overhead expenses, but the center is able to house numerous groups on its $60,000 yearly budget.
“We go to a lot of garage sales,” Lindberg says.
It helps that the center pays only a dollar a year to rent the two houses from PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center, and receives United Way funding. Every December the center hosts its “Festival of Trees” fundraiser at The Leopold, with a dinner, auction and a “Winter Wonderland Walk” among decorated holiday trees. The center also plans to start a crowd-funding campaign to help with expenses
Raising money presents a special challenge because the center’s focus on overhead isn’t “sexy,” and the center doesn’t want to compete with its member groups.
“We have intentionally chosen that route, taking a back seat to the nonprofits,” Lindberg says.