by Heather Flaherty and Tessa Whitlock
Editor’s Note: There are over 100 organizations in Whatcom County working to provide supportive ser- vices to those experiencing chronic poverty and its associated effects: ad- diction, homelessness, incarceration, mental illness, and unemployment. Whatcom Watch believes these orga- nizations often labor unnoticed by citizens — this column is designed to add daylight to their endeavors. We have contacted the organiza- tion appearing in this column and asked them to explain their mission. Because, in challenging times, being inspired and perhaps empowered by the acts of others is more important than ever.
What would it look like if every child got a healthy start in Whatcom County? And, if every person received the care they need, throughout their lifetime?
What would that look like for you? What would have helped you or your family get a healthier start in life? How do you define care? Are you able to get the care you need in our community? Whether that’s going to the doctor, seeing a counselor, having access to healthy food, or feeling safety and belonging where you live?
When people have been asked to draw what a healthy life looks like, and explain the components of what allows them to be their healthiest selves, they often include images of family members and friends; healthy food and meals; activities like hiking, walking, swimming, or biking; and a safe home to live in. This year has shown us just how much we need a well-resourced and equipped healthcare system — but we can’t forget to also make investments in the factors outside of the system, such as housing, nutrition, financial stability, our physical environment, and social supports. Because we know that these factors actually contribute more to our health outcomes than our medical care alone, we are committed to taking a holistic view of community health.
Our vision is a vibrant community where every child gets a healthy start and every person receives the care they need throughout their lifetime. We know that we have hard work ahead to make this vision a reality. Right now, every child is not getting a healthy start — in fact, only about half of our children are considered “kindergarten ready” (we use this as a measure in community health planning because it can be an indicator for how well our systems are supporting families and children before they get access to the supports of our public school system). When this is disaggregated by race and income, that statistic falls to about 1 in 4 — and for certain groups, as low as 1 in 10 of our children. When we look at this data, we believe we can and should be doing so much more.
Right now, it is also safe to say that not every adult is receiving the care they need in Whatcom County. We have significant waitlists for mental health services and other treatments — for some of our lower-resourced families, access to dental care is a major challenge — and there are gaps in our services for both our youngest and oldest neighbors.
Since our definition of care includes addressing the social determinants of health, we also see how the lack of affordable housing in our community leads to more and more of our neighbors being unhoused and unable to access the resources they need. As is the case in all of focus areas, the Covid-19 pandemic has further highlighted the ways in which our current systems fall short in supporting the full spectrum of Whatcom County residents.
So, what are we doing about this?
The core of our mission is to invest experience and resources to advance individual and community health. The Chuckanut Health Foundation was formed with the proceeds from the sale of St. Luke’s Hospital in the early 1980s, with the goal of supporting the health of our community in perpetuity. For over 35 years, the foundation has worked toward this goal in partnership with our nonprofit community. This often looks like providing grant funding to programs such as those offered by Lydia Place and Communities in Schools of Whatcom-Skagit, as well as for capital projects like Max Higbee Center’s new building and Northwest Youth Service’s Ground Floor drop-in center. We know that without the vital support provided by these and other nonprofit partners, some of our most vulnerable neighbors would go without care, shelter, food, or support.
Our work also extends beyond grantmaking — to advance our vision of community health, we may advocate for systems-change to address the conditions upstream that lead to poor outcomes; we may convene community conversations to help inspire collective action; and sometimes we actively support coalition building and strategic planning on behalf of community health.
This year, we are focused on advancing this work through four priority areas: Healthy Children and Families; Aging Well; Behavioral Health and Youth Mental Health; and advancing Health Equity. The past year has also taught us the value of being flexible to address emerging issues — we are committed to staying responsive to the needs of today and tomorrow, and established a Covid-19 relief fund in order to do so.
Healthy Children and Families
Our work in this area involves looking at how we are supporting our children and families early on — since science has shown us just how critical the first 1,000 days of development are for children, we know that ensuring access to care and resources has a significant impact on family well-being and can change generational trajectories. Our goal is to make sure our community has comprehensive support available for families, including affordable and accessible childcare, rapid re-housing for unhoused families, parent education and support, and wages that allow families to not simply survive, but to thrive. One of our projects in this area is working with a coalition of local stakeholders to explore sustainable options for supporting children and families, including investing in expanding childcare options — as this is an economic issue as well as an opportunity to provide care for children, and, before the pandemic, there were only four licensed slots for every 10 children in Whatcom County, and we know the pressures of the pandemic has made this worse.
Building on our 2019 Aging Well Whatcom Blueprint and Community Summit, we are working to make Whatcom County a place with the culture, physical infrastructure, social supports, and services for all of us to age well. This includes bringing together a multisector coalition to look at the full range of needs and capabilities that our aging population brings — with a rapidly growing number of older adults in our community, we know how important it is to do this work now. Concerned by the isolation experienced by many older adults during Covid-19, last year we launched the “Dear Friend” Pen Pal Program to foster connection and build intergenerational community, and, to date, our community has written nearly 1,000 letters! The program serves as a reminder that across age and geography, our neighbors can care for each other in simple and profound ways.
Behavioral Health/Youth Mental Health
With anxiety and depression on the rise among teens, we are looking at cross-sector approaches to reduce risk factors and building resilience. Although some of this work involves examining complex issues, such as barriers to behavioral health care and the impacts of social media, we know that there are also simple steps we can take to bolster protective factors. Research has shown that if children have trusted adults in their lives, they will do better — and each of us can choose to be that trusted adult for the youth in our lives.
Health Equity/Racial Equity Commission
While our mission has always been to ensure that all of our neighbors receive the care they need, over the past year it became clear that we needed to do more to confront the persistent, race-based disparities in our community. In order to address these inequities, which show up in every single system — housing, criminal justice, education, healthcare, etc. — we must call out the root causes that create these conditions. In addition to establishing Health Equity as one of our primary focus areas, we are working with the city of Bellingham and Whatcom County to build a community-led Racial Equity Commission to create systemic change and lead to a more equitable and just community.
Every day, the Chuckanut Health Foundation goes to work to try and make our vision come true: we want to see Whatcom County be a place where EVERY child gets a healthy start, and EVERY person receives the care they need throughout their lifetime. That’s a tall order— and that’s the beauty of a bold vision. We know we can’t achieve this alone, nor should we. A vision like this needs to be owned and brought to life by everyone in our community. We all have a part to play. And that is why we do our work in relationship, because, like the adage says: if you want to go fast, go alone — but if you want to go far, go together. For this vision, we need to go far.
To learn more, support this work, or get involved, visit us at www.chuckanuthealthfoundation.org!
Heather Flaherty serves as the executive director for the Chuckanut Health Foundation and has been a champion for community health in Whatcom County for over a decade. Before coming to the foundation, she managed human resources for restaurants and artisan food manufacturing companies, directed a family foundation’s strategic giving, and worked in healthcare administration at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center.
Tessa Whitlock is CHF’s operations coordinator, bringing a nonprofit background and a passion for helping people advocate for their needs within the healthcare system. BeforeservingatCHF,Tessaworked at the Whatcom Alliance for Health Advancement. In her free-time, she can be found volunteering with the Chore Program and working with individuals on their end-of-life wishes.