District staff celebrating at the Ken Gass Community Awards Gala

At a December 2019 event, the Options High School administrative team, the district prevention specialist in Bellingham Public Schools, and volunteer/benefactor Elie Samuel were honored by the Whatcom Family and Community Network (WFCN).

Every year, the WFCN recognizes individuals, businesses and organizations with the Ken Gass Community Building Awards for “increasing community caring, empowerment and connections that improve the lives of children, youth and families,” according to their award letter.

In the award tribute about Options principal Byron Gerard and assistant principal Nancy Barga, it states:

Byron is a hands-on learner and alternative-school person, giving him a relevant perspective on Options student needs.  He seeks student input through frequent interactions with student reps from each rally (aka: homeroom), which he factors into school-related changes. On the macro level of community building, he stays positive in interactions and recognizes the best in others.   On the micro level, Byron institutes practices like Hot Chocolate Mondays, where volunteers greet students with hot cocoa; and with serving popcorn at lunchtime. 

Nancy’s work is about expanding opportunity through partnerships. Within the district and across the community, she collaborates to coordinate an online learning program for the four district high schools and support the GRADS program for teen parents. She is the liaison with Bellingham police and probation officers regarding student issues and ensures an education program as part of substance and mental health recovery for teen girls. She initiates student participation in WSU- CASHE, a program for Latino students pursuing leadership skills and higher education, works with district homeless liaisons to serve students experiencing poverty and homelessness, and serves as the summer school principal; The long list demonstrates how she works to understand student needs and develops and sustains opportunities to serve them.

Jeff McKenna is the 2019 Geof Morgan Legacy Award winner. His career spanned decades and affected thousands of children and families. His tribute states:

Leaving legacy means creating something with staying power, something that lives on to benefit others beyond the present. Jeff McKenna personifies leaving legacy.  Across Whatcom County, enduring community imprints sourced from Jeff’s heart, mind, spirit, and hands are widely present.  Jeff’s foray into community building began six decades ago as a young man, adopted by love into the Nooksack tribal community…

Patterns in prevention, intervention and supportive relationships show up in his community work. As Bellingham school district’s first substance abuse professional, he was hired to “solve the drug problem” showing up in teens in the mid-1980s.  He quickly framed this correctly as a “community concern” that would be more effectively addressed if services were available in school settings so schools and community agencies could partner.  This “resources in the schools” model was innovative at the time….

Jeff led the development of a youth suicide prevention program, MAD – HOPE, in partnership with the Bellingham School District, WFCN, Whatcom Prevention Coalition, and the Whatcom County Health Department.  MAD – HOPE currently serves over 1500 youth a year in every one of Whatcom County’s school districts…

Over a lifetime of meeting human challenge and pain with “I gotta do something,” Jeff personifies the spirit and heart of community building. 

Elie Samuel, owner of Samuel’s Furniture, also received a community building award for his work with the district’s Family Resource Center. His honor statement reads:

Elie Samuel has put his own resources to work to change the lives of hundreds of students and their families in our community. Every Thursday for the past three years, Elie donates his delivery truck and staff to Bellingham Public Schools. They pick up community-donated items from the district’s Family Resource Center and deliver the items to the homes of families in need. These families have lived in crisis and they often know nothing of the kindness, care, and generosity of a compassionate community. HIs generosity has turned “places to stay” into homes for families. By transforming family homes, Elie has generated family engagement, promoting a pathway of academic and societal success for children who might otherwise struggle.

The Ken Gass Community Building Awards

According to WFCN, the community awards “reflect our community’s highest values and deepest commitment to the well-being of all members of the community.” They are named after retired pediatrician Dr. Ken Gass who was one of the founders of the Whatcom commission on families. Gass served 17 years as a school board director in Bellingham Public Schools from 1998 to 2015.


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