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Community steps up to help the most vulnerable

Community in Action

The people at Bellingham Public Schools who support students in need and their families are dealing with what one of them called “a great problem to have.”

The family engagement team has had such a surge of volunteers this year, team members haven’t always known what to do with them all. The community has been responding to a growing need among Bellingham’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable — a need that has been heightened this year by fears over recent changes in national immigration policy.

“Since the election, we’ve had a hard time keeping up with all the volunteers,” said Kathe Koruga, ELL family advocate. “It’s a great problem to have. We can’t do this work without the community’s support.”



In the current national political climate, our message to our children locally in Bellingham Public Schools stems from The Bellingham Promise that all children are loved. Their presence is an asset to our community. They are here, far from invisible, and we are taking steps to support them. — Dr. Greg Baker, superintendent


The school district’s family engagement team strives to meet basic needs, everything from clothes and furniture to toothpaste.

One volunteer who has made an impact is Elie Samuel, a Bellingham resident who owns Samuel’s Furniture in Ferndale. Koruga took him to visit families in need, and he was struck by how little some children in Bellingham schools have.

“After the home visits I thought, ‘What can I do to help this program?'” Samuel said.

The furniture store owner found a ready answer to his question. He has donated tables, beds, chairs, dressers and sofas to families. He has provided employees and trucks to deliver furniture the family engagement staff has purchased with help from the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation Family Support Fund.

“They do have some access to furniture,” Samuel said. “It’s much harder to move it around.”

When asked to put a number on how much he has given to families through Bellingham Public Schools, in furniture, deliveries or other support, Samuel said he didn’t know. Koruga just calls his delivery staff directly whenever she needs to get furniture to a family. In just one day in April, store employees made seven deliveries. All of those deliveries would have happened one way or another, Koruga said, but the help offered by Samuel’s Furniture made them go more smoothly and quickly. The delivery staff benefited too, Samuel said.

“My staff is getting to interact with people and see those needs, and feel they are making a difference,” he said.

Samuel’s generosity is having a ripple effect. He created scholarships of $1,000 and $500 for Latino students who will continue their education after high school. Once word got out, other community members established three more $500 scholarships, making five in all. They are the first scholarships specifically for Latino students at Bellingham Public Schools, Koruga said. Samuel said he would make sure they were offered in future years.

Other community members, including churches, have stepped forward to help the school district’s nearly 800 non-English-speaking families. In a meeting with the church-based Whatcom Refugee Committee on April 23, Koruga emphasized the need for essential hygiene items — laundry soap, shampoo, toilet paper, toothpaste — and money to buy everything from bags to deliver the hygiene kits, to bigger-ticket items such as beds. The school district has given more than 200 beds to families with the support of the Foundation.

All ELL families new to Bellingham schools get home visits because the language barrier is a significant obstacle for them, Koruga said. But she emphasized that all families in need receive home visits and other types of support. All of this takes place through the school district’s Bellingham Promise, and the Promise is fulfilled only with the help of members of the community.

“As the Promise says, ‘Together we achieve more than alone,'” Koruga said.

How you can help

Bellingham Public Schools accepts furniture, backpacks, clothing and — a high priority right now — hygiene items.

  • People who want to donate hygiene items may contact Kathe Koruga at
  • Make a donation to the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation. When filling out the online form, request your money go into the “One Schoolhouse Fund,” and in the comment field at the bottom of the page, specify “Family Support Fund.” More information is at

Photos: (1) Elie Samuel poses during a recent home visit with a Somali family whom he helped. (2) Samuel holds a toddler during another family visit.

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