by Julie Guay
There are over 100 organizations in Whatcom County working to provide supportive services to those experiencing chronic poverty and its associated effects: addiction, homelessness, incarceration, mental illness, and unemployment. Whatcom Watch believes these organizations often labor unnoticed by citizens — this column is designed to add daylight to their endeavors. We have contacted the organization 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.
Blue Skies for Children is a local nonprofit organization that has been serving families in Whatcom and Skagit Counties since 1997. Blue Skies works with local youth who are ages 6 to 18, who are living homeless, low-income or in foster care. Blue Skies’ programs focus on raising hope and self-esteem, and offer support for a variety of enrichment activities, one-time little wishes, musical instruments, a driver’s education scholarship, as well as distribution of essential items.
The Enrichment Program provides children with an opportunity to participate in activities such as team sports such as soccer, swim team, or ice hockey, individual sports such as martial arts, swimming lessons or horseback riding, music lessons such as guitar, violin, or piano, gymnastics, dance, art lessons, tutoring, and so much more. Blue Skies typically supports ongoing enrichment for up to 95 kids at a time.
The wait list for participation in this program has grown significantly this year with families looking for ways to keep their children active and healthy throughout the pandemic. Instructors have become very creative in a desire to keep their businesses thriving and students engaged in their enrichment activities. Throughout the past months of this pandemic, teachers have taught violin outside in their yard, or have given piano and guitar lessons over Zoom or other similar software. Tutoring has continued with Zoom. Activities such as team sports or swimming were stalled as pools were closed for several months.
Children learn and grow from participation in enrichment activities, and the successes they experience build hope and self-esteem that they will carry with them throughout their lives. The Little Wishes programs provide children with a creative outlet and give at-risk youth a sense of competency. Enrichment activities enhance cognitive skills, problem solving capabilities, and expand social skills. An increase in hope and self-esteem are essential to the well-being and development of our homeless, low-income and foster children. After enrollment, many enrichment providers and families report an increase in their students self-discipline, grades improve and sibling interactions are significantly improved.
The One-Time Little Wishes Program generally provides support for summer camps, school-related trip fees, ASB cards, graduation expenses, computers and so much more. Although camps were closed this summer and team sports were suspended, the one-time Little Wishes program never stopped receiving requests in the Blue Skies office. Kids submitted Little Wish applications for bicycles and helmets, refurbished computers, and graduation expenses. The Instrument Loaner Program continues as usual with kids in need of instruments, either for a music Zoom class or for lessons through the Enrichment Program.
Blue Skies offers a Swim to Live Program that had kids enrolled in lessons and swim team. Interestingly, those in swim team conducted workouts over zoom without a pool in order to maintain fitness. Blues Skies offers three distribution programs providing kids brand new athletic shoes, socks, back-to-school backpacks, and warm winter gear such as coats, hats, gloves, scarves and blankets. The shoe program was postponed this year, but more than 200 backpacks were distributed as kids went back to school over the past three months. Typically Blue Skies receives over 800 requests for backpacks, but this year is different in every way and requests do continue to come in as kids head back to the classroom.
Many families are experiencing a particularly difficult hardship this year. Recently, a single mom came in to Blue Skies in search of help. She has three biological children, and had recently taken in her two nephews who were otherwise headed to foster care. Mom works a minimum wage job and finances are very tight. The kids range in ages from four years old to eighteen. Her school age kids were soon to start school in a district with a hybrid model, attending part-time on school campus and part-time home school.
The help she received from Blue Skies eased her immediate concerns for her kids. Blue Skies was able to provide a fleece blanket for each child, warm coats, sweatshirts, socks, backpacks, books, and masks. Two of the kids turned in applications for a Little Wish for bicycles and helmets. All of these items were beyond the scope of her budget and she was exceptionally grateful.
The kids were excited to start back to school with a warm coat and brand new backpack. Mom said that between paying rent and keeping food on the table for five kids, it was hard to provide little more. She said it felt like a glimmer of hope to see the big smiles on their faces. She shared that her kids feel much more excited about going back to school and seeing their classmates again.
Julie Guay has been the executive director of Blue Skies for Children for the past 14 years and was previously on the board of directors. She holds a master’s degree in business administration (MBA), a graduate school certification in project management, and a B.S. in organizational management. She was previously employed as vice president of administration for Neptune Management Corporation. Prior to that, she was employed as a business development program manager for Olympic Health/Sterling Life for eight years. She is active in the community, and has been a long-standing member of Whatcom Women in Business (WWIB). She is currently on the board of a philanthropic group called Women Sharing Hope and has previously served on the board of The Whatcom Dream and Marianne’s House.