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They ended a Firs contract. Now Opportunity Council is depending on community support

People explain why they’re protesting outside The Firs

People explain why they're protesting outside The Firs near Bellingham, Wash., on Monday, June 24, 2019. The Firs, a religious nonprofit, fired a Bellingham teen for being gay in early June.
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People explain why they're protesting outside The Firs near Bellingham, Wash., on Monday, June 24, 2019. The Firs, a religious nonprofit, fired a Bellingham teen for being gay in early June.

The Opportunity Council is close to finding a new kitchen space after canceling its decades-long kitchen lease with The Firs after the organization fired a Bellingham teenager in early June over his sexual orientation.

David Webster, Opportunity Council’s director of early learning and family services, said there are three potential kitchen sites the social services agency is interested in negotiating with. He said they need an operational kitchen by Aug. 23.

In addition to closing in on a new location, community members have raised nearly $8,500 through a Go Fund Me campaign and other fundraisers for the Opportunity Council. A ‘Days of Opportunity’ fundraiser will also be held at Pepper Sisters restaurant in downtown Bellingham from 4:30-9:30 p.m. Saturday, July 13, with 10% of the proceeds going to the Opportunity Council’s new kitchen.

The Opportunity Council canceled its contract, which had been in place for more than 25 years, with the Christian nonprofit organization June 21 because The Firs’ decision to fire a summer camp counselor it had hired because he’s gay did not align with the non-discrimination clauses in federal and state contracts that fund Opportunity Council programs, Greg Winter, Opportunity Council’s executive director, said in a press release.

The Firs’ executive director Tom Beaumont confirmed in a statement to The Bellingham Herald in early June that 18-year-old Jace Taylor was fired because he’s gay. Beaumont posted a public statement on The Firs’ Facebook page, stating that Taylor did not align with the nonprofit’s doctrinal statements.

A community-organized protest was held the morning of June 24 along the public sidewalks outside The Firs headquarters on Cable Street. Around 100 protesters showed up, many with signs and rainbow flags. The protest took place during the same time as drop off for the children attending camps.

Community contributions

After the Opportunity Council announced it was ending its lease with The Firs, Webster said seven potential sites contacted the agency, and they also reached out to a few.

Webster said they need a kitchen that’s licensable, affordable in terms of rent, in a good location and already equipped with the biggest necessary items, such as commercial exhaust hoods over stoves, which can cost around $40,000. Webster said the three potential sites Opportunity Council is interested in negotiating with are in Bellingham on the north side, in Ferndale School District boundaries and in Lynden.

He said he can’t disclose the exact location until an official deal has been signed with one of them. Webster said he hopes to have a new lease signed by Aug. 1.

The Firs’ lease provided Opportunity Council with a fully-equipped, commercially-licensed kitchen, which was used to provide meals for children in Head Start and Early Childhood Assistance and Education preschools throughout Whatcom County, Webster said. The lease paralleled the school year, he said.

Opportunity Council staff produce breakfast, lunch and snacks daily during the school year for around 500 children, Webster said. Staff take the prepared food to sites in Bellingham, Lynden and Kendall and the nonprofit is looking to expand options throughout the county, Webster said.

As of July 12, around 85 donors have pledged or contributed more than $11,000 to the new kitchen, Webster said. Opportunity Council has committed $40,000 of unrestricted revenue to early costs of finding a new kitchen so that the agency isn’t in limbo while they wait on donations to arrive, he said.

Webster said he expects Opportunity Council will need at least $97,000 total, and they are asking the community to assist. He said the nonprofit is working on applying for small emergency grants in the meantime.

“Even before our agency made its values-based decision to seek a new kitchen location, we were committed to making sure children from our county’s lowest-income households were getting nutritious meals as a key ingredient in their brain development and overall health. It has been our mission for a long time (more than 50 years),” Webster said. “Every sum helps, big or small. Our children are worth your investment.”

Cherrelyn Seegers, the organizer for the Pepper Sisters fundraiser and the protest outside The Firs, said she hopes to get more businesses involved in donations or fundraising events between now and the end of August.

“I felt it was important that we take this army of passionate people, 750 members, from the protest and let the (Opportunity Council) know that we have their backs, and are willing to continue making a lasting difference for them and for the children of Head Start,” Seegers said.

A fundraiser was previously held at Bayou on Bay and raised $1,000, according to Webster. There have also been several social media fundraising campaigns that have been successful, he said.

Webster said if they don’t have an operational kitchen by Aug. 23, the agency would have to contract for food services, which is much more expensive. He said if they sign a lease, they will have work projects, such as painting or other minor repairs, that they hope a corporate or organizational volunteer team might want to help with.

He said the money Opportunity Council is seeking from the community is primarily to equip the new kitchen space, so it would be one-time costs. He said they hope to absorb any lease or rent costs into operational grants that support the preschool programs.

The date of the Pepper Sisters fundraiser was corrected July 13, 2019.

Reporter Denver Pratt joined The Bellingham Herald in 2017 and covers courts and criminal and social justice. She has worked in Montana, Florida and Virginia.
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