Dean Kahn

Opportunity Council marks 50 years of helping needy in Whatcom County

Coordinator Anne Poulson, left, and volunteer Sandie Starr bake tomatoes for lunch at Maple Alley Inn at Faith Lutheran Church in Bellingham on Oct. 14, 2015. The free meal is sponsored by the Opportunity Council on Wednesdays and Thursdays. In 2014, a total of 1,385 people ate hot free meals there.
Coordinator Anne Poulson, left, and volunteer Sandie Starr bake tomatoes for lunch at Maple Alley Inn at Faith Lutheran Church in Bellingham on Oct. 14, 2015. The free meal is sponsored by the Opportunity Council on Wednesdays and Thursdays. In 2014, a total of 1,385 people ate hot free meals there. The Bellingham Herald

The Opportunity Council, Whatcom County’s bulwark in President Lynden Johnson’s “war on poverty,” is celebrating 50 years of working to help people in need become self-sufficient.

Through the decades, the nonprofit agency has spawned numerous programs. Some had short lives — does anyone remember the low-income meat co-op? Other programs remain vibrant, and several have spun off to become independent.

The resilient agency has grown, shrunk, and grown again with changes in funding, focus and the political climate, especially at the federal level.

19 percentnational poverty rate, 1964

15.8 percentnational poverty rate, 2013

16.4 percentWhatcom poverty rate, 2013

“We pride ourselves on being innovative,” said Dave Finet, executive director. “People always look to what’s going on up here in Whatcom County and the northwest part of the state, and are surprised at how well the nonprofits and local governments work together.”

Major federal legislation to fight poverty passed in 1964. The following year, the Whatcom County Council OK’d the creation of the Whatcom County Opportunity Council to carry out programs. The “Whatcom” part of the name was later dropped when the council began providing services in San Juan and Island counties.

The nonprofit agency’s 50th anniversary will be celebrated at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, at Mount Baker Theatre. Guest speaker is Ron Sims, former HUD secretary and former King County executive. Tickets are $9 at Village Books and Mount Baker Theatre.

The agency began with a small donated office in the county courthouse basement, with a typewriter borrowed from the school district. Early efforts included an academy for high school dropouts, health care services and Head Start to help preschoolers and their parents.

With current rental sold, mother of two could afford new apartment rent, but didn’t have money for damage deposit, first month’s rent; $800 from council helped her move.

In 1973, President Nixon’s push to eliminate such agencies left the Opportunity Council with just four employees ready to shut the doors, but Congress provided the money to keep them open. New efforts in the 1970s included a coalition to reduce child abuse, weatherization programs for low-income residents, community gardens and one-stop shopping for information about social services.

The next hold-your-breath moment came in the 1980s when the Reagan administration targeted the federal Community Services Administration, the Opportunity Council’s bureaucratic parent. The federal agency died, but the council survived, thanks to federal grants channeled through the states, more money for weatherization and other energy assistance, and the council’s energetic search for new sources of revenue and new community partners.

A divorced father evicted after injury, returned to work but landlords wary about his eviction, lack of deposit money; council helped find willing landlord, paid $460 deposit.

For example, the agency worked with local churches and Whatcom County Medical Society to provide medical care to poor people. The agency screened patients and local doctors offered free care. Local dentists got involved, too.

“It was a creative partnership that flourished,” said Don Keenan, the agency’s director from 1978 to 1994. “You can’t do it by yourself; you need partners.”

Over time, the health-care service grew into the independent Interfaith Community Health Center. Today, the center has a new name, Unity Care NW, with clinics in Bellingham, Ferndale and Point Roberts.

A similar effort by the agency, Evergreen Legal Services and the Whatcom County Bar Association provided free legal advice to low-income people, with the agency screening clients. That effort later became the independent LAW Advocates, still based in Bellingham.

Move, change in employers left father without paychecks for about six weeks. With $400 in rent aid he was able to move into his own apartment with his son.

The agency has won praise for its energy programs, and earns extra revenue by offering weatherization training. In some cases, weatherization crews add extra changes to reduce problems for children with asthma.

Finet, who began his 29-year tenure at the agency in the weatherization program, hopes that future home fix-it visits will include changes to reduce the risk of falls by elderly residents.

Efforts to improve people’s health, support preschoolers, house the homeless and feed the hungry, together, can all help people to escape poverty, he said.

“We have a really strong core group of services and programs,” Finet said. “It’s about whole-person health.”

Reach Dean Kahn at 360-715-2291 or dean.kahn@bellinghamherald.com. He worked for the Opportunity Council for a few years in the late 1970s. Read his columns at bellinghamherald.com/dean-kahn.

Opportunity Council 2014

$23.9 million - overall budget

225 - approximate number of full- and part-time employees

31,084 - number of services provided in 2014

9,007 - families helped with heat and electricity bills

7,181 - Whatcom residents given information and referrals for social services

2,128 - families helped to find child care

1,385 - people given free hot meals at Maple Alley Inn

521 - Whatcom families helped to get in, or stay in, their home

475 - children in Early Head Start and Head Start preschool

112 - homes weatherized

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