Something horrific happened in Bellingham this winter. A baby starved to death. I didn’t think that was possible here, now, where I live.
Many wonderful things happened this winter, too. A middle school band played a big band/swing concert at the Senior Center. A fifth grade class is trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records, together. A four year old went to school for the first time ever and loved it.
I had nothing to do with any of these events, big, small, devastating or quietly glorious. But I feel a responsibility for all of it. This is my home, my neighborhood, my community. This is where I live and work and raise my children.
The gap between families with more resources and those with fewer is still too wide, and the impact too powerful.
I want to live in a place that makes it easy to raise children. I want mothers and fathers to be able to care for their newborns. I want mothers to nurse; I want families to have enough food. I want that food to be healthy and delicious, and affordable.
I think we should have time to spend with friends; I think we should be able to safely walk to parks to play.
In August I was lucky enough to start a new job in the Bellingham Public Schools as director of wellness. It is this amazing opportunity to think about what it takes to keep students and families and staff healthy and well, and then see what we can do to build that kind of community. School breakfast and lunch; time for recess; examining our health education practices; taking care of staff so they are fresh and refreshed every day — these are the immediate bodies of work.
Of course there are already great programs in place. Many of our schools have vibrant gardens that are rich learning spaces. We have a team of physical education teachers who are leaders in the state, working to grow physical confidence and fitness in all students, pre-K through 12th grade. Thanks to a commitment to our health held in common by our students, staff and families, we are working hard to serve more whole foods cooked from scratch for breakfast and lunch.
We also have lots of room for improvement. The gap between families with more resources and those with fewer is still too wide, and the impact too powerful. “Health disparities” is a term that refers to “preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health” among communities of people who “experience different social and economic discrimination based on a number of factors such as race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, age, sexual orientation and geographic location.” So many “healthy” choices are expensive and inaccessible — from club sports to fresh fruits and vegetables.
My favorite part of The Bellingham Promise is the “One Schoolhouse” strategy. One Schoolhouse means that all students, in all our schools, can access a great education. But One Schoolhouse takes all of us. It should maybe be called “our schoolhouse.” We all have to commit to caring for a community that stretches beyond any boundaries we may imagine — beyond school bus lines or neighborhood street signs, beyond the people we work or go to church with — to make this a reality.
Washington state ranks 31st among all states in in per-pupil funding. Our state Legislature is in contempt of court for failing to fully fund education. And yet locally we continue to be great supporters of our children and our schools. We passed our recent levy; we passed a critical facilities bond in 2013; we have tremendous community partners who support many elements of education.
How to help
The responsibility we hold for caring for one another will never end. Right now, I choose to support the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation because the foundation supports One Schoolhouse. I want my children — and their friends, and the kids in town I don’t know — to receive a top-notch education. Neither health nor education is a zero-sum game: rather, when we are all healthier and more educated, we are all better off. The foundation has developed a One Schoolhouse fund, and is also directly supporting wellness and safety efforts in our district. Consider joining me in making a gift to the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation during their promise campaign, underway now.
Please, let’s build a community that takes great care of our youngest children and their families.
Jessica Sankey is director of wellness for Bellingham Public Schools.