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‘Friends’ give helping hand to Bellingham school families

Community in Action

The Family Resource Center is always busy meeting the basic needs of families in Bellingham Public Schools. The need is so great, in fact, the center can get overwhelmed.

That’s where the group known as the Friends of the Family Resource Center come in.

“We have projects in mind but no time,” said Kathe Koruga, family engagement liaison for Bellingham schools. “These ladies pushed things into action, so that’s been awesome.”

Since forming at the beginning of the school year—core members were Carmen Gilmore, Daniele O’Connell, Kate Wearn and Dorothy Watson—the Friends of the FRC have stepped up in numerous ways. Last fall, they helped start two big personal-care drives, at Lowell Elementary and Bellingham High School.

The Friends deflected the credit for the drives to the students, teachers, counselors and other parents who did most of the work. (Much of what the Friends accomplished was behind the scenes, setting up meetings with school staff to get the drives started.) At Lowell, seven students on the school’s Leaders of the Future team collected 3,702 diapers and 864 personal-care items—everything from toilet paper to toothpaste. Students delivered the items Dec. 13 to the Family Resource Center at Shuksan Middle School.

Kristin O’Malley’s seventh-period Mentoring Class at Bellingham High School collected personal-care items and blankets at the school and during athletic events, and wrote emails to parents asking for donations.

Gilmore, O’Connell and Wearn met with Koruga and Isabel Meaker, special assistant to the superintendent for family engagement, in February to find out what they could do next to help the Family Resource Center. The center would like to have a consistent, year-round supply of personal-care items to provide families. Items in highest demand include laundry soap, dish soap and larger diapers, in sizes 4 and above.

“When kids get older, parents tend to lose those connections” to support services, Meaker said. And food stamps don’t cover items such as shampoo and deodorant.

Meaker, Koruga and the Friends also discussed how to make the Family Resource Center more financially viable. Bottom line: the group needs a more robust income stream.

“We need funds in hand at the beginning of the year, with all the new families coming in,” Meaker said. She said it would be good if the FRC could start the year with $25,000; the center recently spent “every penny” of its $17,000 budget. “We want to help more families,” Meaker said.

The Friends talked about ways to meet students’ needs during the summer, when they aren’t in school. They decided to help parents at Regency Park Apartments fill out scholarship forms for Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department’s summer programs. The parks scholarship was seen as a good way for the 14 Somali families who recently moved into Regency Park to connect with the broader community.

Friends of the Family Resource Center is an offshoot of the Parent Advisory Committee, which meets regularly with Superintendent Greg Baker and other school staff to bring the parents’ perspective to school policymaking. The “Friends” group formed shortly after Gilmore, O’Connell and Wearn attended a PAC meeting in April 2017, when Meaker gave a presentation about the great need felt by a number of Bellingham students. In some cases, families are homeless. Some students are “unaccompanied minors” who aren’t looked after by adults. Some students arrive from other countries, fleeing war or violence, with little or no ability to speak English.

“You hear of families living in tents outside, living in hotel rooms,” Gilmore said. “People have no idea.”

Wearn, who was closely involved with the Lowell personal-care drive, agreed the FRC presentation one year ago was eye-opening.

“Not everyone realizes that issues related to poverty are present at all schools across our district,” Wearn said. “Many people are shocked to learn of the challenges people within their own schools face. Once people hear personal stories of families struggling here in our own district, the community’s response is overwhelmingly generous. So one very important piece of our work is community education.”

“There are so many people who want to help. They just don’t know how,” Gilmore added. As Friends of the Family Resource Center, she said, “we can be that conduit between people who want to help and people who need help.”


How to help:

If you would like to find out how you can help the Family Resource Center, or learn how to make a donation supporting basic family needs through the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation, contact Kathe Koruga at 360-676-6456 or katherine.koruga@bellinghamschools.org.

Those who wish to contact the Friends of the Family Resource Center can email FriendsoftheFRC@gmail.com.

Personal-care items may be placed year-round in a donation bin near the cash registers at TERRA Organic and Natural Foods in the Public Market, 1530 Cornwall Avenue.

 

Photos: (1) Friends of the Family Resource Center: Carmen Gilmore, Daniele O’Connell and Kate Wearn. (2-3) Students from Lowell Elementary School deliver hygiene items Dec. 13 to the Family Resource Center at Shuksan Middle School. (4) Kristin O’Malley, Bellingham High School teacher, delivers blankets and other items to the FRC.

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