We spoke with Laura Harker, Executive Director of the Interfaith Coalition of Whatcom County, about the diverse programs their organization runs.
Tell us about the Interfaith Coalition.
In 1981, over 40 religious and social service leaders in Whatcom County met to find a way to serve community members in times of need. They formed a nonprofit organization—the Interfaith Coalition of Whatcom County which pooled resources from religious congregations to work with social service agencies in filling gaps of service.
The following year, in 1982, we launched the Interfaith Community Health Center, in conjunction with the Opportunity Council and Whatcom Medical Society, to provide free or low-cost medical care. During the next several years, Interfaith helped relocate and reorganize the Bellingham Food Bank, provided daycare for children of homeless parents, a shelter for pregnant teen mothers, and support for Maple Alley Inn’s food programs. Interfaith also helped expand the Health Center to provide dental and behavioral health care. In 2001, the Center became its own stand-alone nonprofit.
The constant need for affordable homes, along with chronic homelessness in Whatcom County, led Interfaith to develop temporary housing for families in crisis.
Interfaith started with a single-family home in 1993, and then built a four-unit building to offer transitional housing for families. Offering case management in conjunction was essential in moving families towards self-sufficiency.
We expanded with a home in Ferndale in 2010. Adding housing services to the county makes it easier for children to stay in north county schools and avoid the disruption of changing schools during an already stressful time.
Today, we operate 11 homes for families. Our housing program is unique: families can stay together—unlike group homes, where single dads with young daughters or moms with teenage sons must be separated. About 90 percent of the families we work with find stable housing following their time in Interfaith homes.
Along with housing, our programs include two severe weather shelters for men and women during cold weather, our annual coat drive, a simple food outreach to the homeless, and holiday gifts.
What’s the biggest need you face?
We have so many more homeless families looking for shelter than there are houses. In an ideal world, we would have enough resources to give these families some breathing room and space of their own. No one should have to live in a car or a tent. The reality in Whatcom County is that too many people do just that.
How many families do you serve a year?
In 2014, we provided housing and case management support to 101 parents and their children. On the nights our Severe Weather Shelters were open, we averaged about 80 guests per night.
We hear your Coat Drive is pretty robust.
Yes! We collect and distribute over 3,000 coats each year. We have volunteers throughout the county sorting and distributing the gear. Some volunteers even knit or crochet hats or scarves. People who’d otherwise go without adequate clothing in the winter now stay warm.
What do people not know about the Interfaith Coalition that they should?
How important our annual Hope Auction is. It provides almost one-third of our annual operating expenses. As a small nonprofit, we’re almost totally funded by donations from our community members, businesses, and congregations who believe, as we do, that all people have dignity and that change is possible.