Bellingham nonprofit to open center for kids new to foster care

Ray Deck III stands near the entry of a Bellingham house, where a sign beneath a painting of bright flowers reads: “Courage, dear heart.” Up the stairs are three bedrooms, with colorful quilts, bunk beds and cribs. In the basement are rows of bins filled with small stuffed toys and clothes for boys and girls new to foster care.

The house is the work of Skookum Kids, a new nonprofit Deck helped form, and it is expected to be among the first centers in Washington state to be licensed to temporarily house young children entering the foster care system.

“Our mission is to give foster kids a gentle landing when they enter the foster care system,” said Deck, a foster parent who works in new product development for Bellingham-based Faithlife Corp.

Whatcom County children would stay for 72 hours at the house, which would be staffed by trained volunteers.

The center would help fill a gap in service that exists in Whatcom County and other parts of the state, according to Laurie Alexander, the area administrator for the Children’s Administration.

“We need them everywhere. We need this to happen across the state,” Alexander said.

The center is ready. Skookum Kids will open to children as soon as the state Department of Social and Health Services grants the nonprofit a license to operate as a resource and assessment center, which is a new type of group home created by state legislators in 2013.

“It’s a new approach to solving this problem,” Deck said.

Skookum is Chinook word that means, primarily, strong or healthy. Organizers of the nonprofit thought the word reflected their goals of helping foster children have a chance at healthy and happy lives.

Skookum Kids can house six children from Whatcom County at a time. If there’s space, children from other counties would be accepted.

The space would be for children up to 12 years old. Kids older than 12 could stay if they have younger siblings, or if they are parents themselves.

Skookum Kids grew from a conversation between Alexander and Deck in February 2014. They were sitting at the same table during the first meeting of the Samish Way Coalition, which was trying to stop illegal activity on Samish Way in Bellingham and help those in need including children and families.

That was when Alexander talked about the gap in service that exists when the state first takes children from their homes because of abuse or neglect.

When children enter foster care for the first time, social workers have 72 hours — or three days — before they appear before a judge with a plan for where the kids will live next.

Social workers then have to scramble to find a foster home that can temporarily take the kids until that hearing before a judge.

“We don’t have enough foster homes for the number of kids coming into care. That’s a statewide problem, but it’s definitely a problem in Whatcom County. It’s happening today that we have people coming into care with no place to go,” Alexander said.

Because there aren’t enough, a child might be separated from siblings or have to go to a foster care home in Whatcom County for a night, and then have to be back in the office with a social worker during the day, which also can be distracting to workers. Or the child might be housed temporarily in other parts of the state, such as Spokane or Yakima — a shuffle that takes them even farther from what’s familiar and deepens their trauma.

“Having a place for six kids at a time (in Whatcom County) will have a huge impact,” Alexander said.

Deck said people have been shocked when they’ve learned about the gap, adding that he then tells them: “I’ve got a solution. Follow me and we can fix this.”

Skookum Kids was started by a group of social service providers, faith communities and childcare professionals. Its relatively quick setup was made possible in part by the Hillcrest Chapel board, which agreed to let its vacant house be used rent-free for two years.

“We have a lot of members who are committed to adoption and the foster kids system,” said Justin Allyne, president of the board for Hillcrest.

“I think it’s in our DNA to see this need and get behind it,” Allyne said, noting that Hillcrest has a summer camp for foster children called Royal Family Kids Camp.

Volunteers also helped ready the space by donating items that include furniture and kitchen equipment, and building bunk beds. About $15,000 in improvements have been made to the house and all but $1,000 of that has been through donated labor.

Skookum Kids is modeled after Hand in Hand, which has such a center in Snohomish County. Called Safe Place, it is staffed by volunteers.

Kellie Schmidt, a Bellingham foster parent, will be among the volunteers at Skookum Kids. She said it can be difficult for foster parents who are asked on short notice to come and pick up a child entering foster care, not to mention the trauma for a child who has to spend the day in a social worker’s office.

Skookum Kids will make a difference, its organizers said.

“I’m excited. It’s going to change the lives of kids, social workers and foster parents all around,” said Schmidt, who is on the nonprofit’s board and also is the enrollment coordinator for Bellingham Christian School.

At its start, the house will be open from the middle of the day Friday to mid-Monday — “the biggest need, which is the weekend,” Deck explained.

The days will be split into four shifts for volunteers, including the longest from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. so children don’t go to bed with one set of volunteers and wake up to different faces.

Children at Skookum Kids would receive food, new clothes and toys, as well as transportation to and from school and for medical screenings.

The goal is to be open all the time, once the service gets going and there are enough volunteers. When that happens, the children’s 72-hour stay wouldn’t count weekends and holidays.

As Skookum Kids waits for state approval to open, Deck is hoping for more help from the community.

That includes:

▪ more volunteers. It takes 72 volunteers to staff a weekend at Skookum, Deck said.

“It takes a lot of hands,” he said. “Many hands make light work.”

▪ more money. While it’s an all-volunteer effort, money is needed to cover expenses that include food, utilities, insurance, supplies and transportation. Costs are expected to total about $100 a night for each child, and the state may pay a little more than a quarter of that.

▪ more support via advocacy.

“It’s a problem that hasn’t gotten a whole lot of press,” Deck said.

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com.

How to help

Additional information about the nonprofit Skookum Kids is online at skookumkids.org. Find out more about volunteering or donating, by selecting “Get Involved” on the homepage.

Skookum Kids also has a Facebook page.

Beyond the short-term emergency care provided by Skookum Kids, officials who care for children said there’s an overall need for additional foster parents in Whatcom County and Washington state. Learn more at fosteringtogether.org.