Jennifer Gaer, Volunteer Coordinator
“I grew up in upstate New York in a small town, which I couldn’t wait to leave. When I turned 18, I did and I’ve never lived back there since I left for college. I was a first generation college student and I had two older sisters who mentored me and showed me the way. I taught English for a couple of years in the Pacific and I learned teaching wasn’t something I had the skillset for myself, but I knew I wanted to be around that dynamic education environment, and that was early on, when I was 25. I have spent the rest of my 30 year career in educational settings.
We had been in Seattle for about 25 years when my husband got a job with Whatcom County. The first thing I did when we arrive was look for ways to volunteer. One of the teachers at my kids’ school in Seattle had relocated here, so I reached out to her and she was a teacher at Alderwood. I started volunteering in her class, not thinking I was going to work for the district. It was like, ‘oh this is cool. This feels right to me. This feels a little bit like home in Seattle.’
Oftentimes people say that volunteerism is giving of yourself, but what they don’t always say is that you get so much more in return — whether it’s a free movie ticket from the Pickford or a career direction, an ‘ah ha’ moment, the satisfaction of impacting a young person’s life — you get so much more in return than what you give.
It’s a perk that I get paid to do something that I really believe in and am committed to — that’s awesome. Right now, it is frustrating because lots of people are contacting me about volunteering, but because of school closures I have very limited remote placements for them. It’s frustrating for everybody right now.
Because of the pause in the volunteer program, I have redirected my time towards family engagement and helping with Internet connectivity, which means I contact families to identify which of the Bellingham-sponsored programs is the best fit for their family. Since the end of August, I think I’ve reached out to about 260 families.
Internet is just one tip of the iceberg for families. For us, if kids can’t have Internet then they can’t go to school, right? It’s a big piece for us. But, for families who are struggling, it’s a tiny tip of the iceberg including rent and food and utilities and healthcare and it’s a much bigger challenge. Families are really struggling right now.
I guess what motivates me in this role is that we, as a district, we do have tools I can offer families. It’s just a matter of connecting and communicating with them what those are and then making those connections. That’s my favorite part of volunteering, too, is making that placement: Taking a need, finding the resource, and bringing them together. I don’t know what I would what would I say to these families right now if I didn’t have something to offer them. It’s so important right now that we support our students and our families. I’m thankful our loving community contributes to the resources we are able to offer families.”
Matt Neisinger, School Nurse at Cordata, Parkview, Sunnyland and Options
“My interests mostly revolve around the outdoors, but one of my indoor ones is that I am a nationally competitive underwater hockey player. It’s a niche sport that we play at the YMCA. It’s nationwide, but our big competition is Seattle. Bellingham is always the underdogs. We did beat Seattle at last year’s Canadian National Championships, so we were very proud. But I think I really like it because it’s the only sport I could get into at my age and fitness and compete at the national level. Our team is called the Bellingham Bottomfeeders. To play, you wear a snorkel and fins and you push the puck along. There’s a goal at each end of the pool and you hold your breath and try to score on your opponents. There are no goalies. It may be surprising, but we’re always looking to recruit new players. So, if you ever want to try underwater hockey, we’re always looking.
Prior to COVID, my role was primarily student health centered. But since COVID, a big part of my focus has been employee health and helping them be safe and get back into buildings. It’s a giant puzzle; the regulations and the guidance from the state and the county are constantly changing. We are trying to stay on top of that so we can really make sure staff are getting the information they need to feel secure when doing their job. And now that kids are back in the building, it is shifting again back to be more student health focused.
I don’t think there’s one person I’ve worked with who’s not thinking of our staff and our students and wanting nothing but the best for them. I feel reassured getting to work with so many different people and getting so many different perspectives. Also, just seeing the enormity of the challenge and trying to step back sometimes and remember that that we’re not isolated in this. The challenges and the difficulties that our staff are facing are the same that our students and families are facing, and the same thing is going on in every community, nationwide. It’s a hard thing. It’s a national crisis; I think we forget that.
I’m hopeful for getting more kids back in our buildings. I hope that as we start having kids in buildings that other people can see how it works. It’s one thing to think about what this looks like, but being able to see it is pretty reassuring.”
Tommy Lingbloom, Dean of Students at Northern Heights and Silver Beach
“I grew up right here in Bellingham. It’s funny because now I work at a school I attended as a student. I work with a teacher who was once my teacher. I won’t say which teacher that was.
Growing up, both of my parents were teachers. My grandma was the secretary at Alderwood. I was always pretty sure I wanted to be a teacher. What changed was what subject and age group I wanted to teach.
When I was a fifth grader, I did an apprenticeship project teaching first graders in my dad’s class at Sunnyland. I taught a lesson — I think we built a snowman out of construction paper. And after that project, I was asked, “do you still want to be a teacher?” and I said “yes, but not elementary.” I was 11 at the time.
Now here I am at elementary and boy, it is fun; it is so much fun. Seeing elementary school teachers at work; their skillset is incredible. After seeing what quality secondary math instruction looked like, and then to walk into a room and see a kindergarten teacher at work and think, “wow, I wouldn’t have known it until I saw it but that’s really good!”
Seeing kids and talking to kids in person after seven months of not having much direct interaction — it’s just wonderful to be back talking with kids and parents when they drop their kids off.
I think it’s a really exciting time to be in Bellingham because there’s a recognition that we as a society and community have a lot of work to do towards equity. There is a huge journey ahead of us as far as equity and anti-racism are concerned. We’re continuing to learn about engaging with families and collaborating with them in equitable ways.
We are thinking more about how our own identity impacts our work. There’s a lot for us to unpack individually but also as teams, as building staff, as a district. And all of this is cause for hope; it’s recognizing all this work is necessary and then getting to do it. For someone in their early-middle part of my career, having multiple decades ahead, it’s exciting to think about what’s to come.”