Bellingham’s Lighthouse Mission began 95 years ago as a safe haven for fishermen and loggers who had fallen on hard times. Today the mission provides shelter for about 250 people daily. Its goal: to break the cycle of homelessness. To this end, it offer three meals every day, a safe place to sleep, employment and legal assistance, one-on-one support and a long-term addiction recovery program.
Lighthouse Mission is fully funded by individual contributions and support from local businesses and churches. Chad Nickisch, Barkley Branch Manager of Peoples Bank, took a special interest in supporting the mission after hearing about one of his children’s classmates experiencing homelessness. “Homelessness is a big problem in our community compounded, ironically, by minimum wage increases in the near future, along with a decrease in affordable housing,” Nickisch says.
Many people working at minimum wage jobs count on low income aid, like SNAP Food Benefits and Medicaid. For some, the recently approved wage increase may revoke their eligibility for these types of aid without covering the costs of benefits.
“Lighthouse Mission is using every square inch of space to meet the needs of our community,” Nickisch says.
The Mission’s 24-hour Drop-In Center is open for anyone experiencing homelessness and is there to support people when they are ready to seek change. In addition to providing meals and shelter, the facility offers access to health care, including an eye clinic which is run in partnership with the Bellingham Central Lions Club. “It’s hard to get a job if you can’t see,” says Hans Erchinger-Davis, Executive Director of Lighthouse Mission Ministries. “We are dedicated to helping motivate change and offering hope for a better future.”
In addition to the Drop-In Center, Lighthouse Mission maintains longer-term shelters for men at The Mission and women and children at Agape Home. “We have doubled our capacity in the last year and a half, and haven’t had to turn anyone away since then,” says Erchinger-Davis.
The dedicated Lighthouse Mission team also uses an outreach program to connect with individuals that don’t visit the Drop-In Center. Staff, volunteers and recovery program personnel go out in the Street Connect van to form relationships. Most of the people they meet are broken and suffering, but the mission wants each to know they are welcome “just as they are” and that they are ready to help at any time. “We understand that everyone changes at different rates,” Erchinger-Davis says. “Here, we are offering a safe context to get back to a flourishing life.”
One woman visited the Drop-In Center off and on for about five years. She usually stayed close to the safety of the Mission, but wasn’t ready to take the next step. She had feelings of shame and felt that she didn’t deserve a better life. One day she was experiencing terrible pain and was rushed to the hospital. There, not knowing she was pregnant, she delivered a baby addicted to drugs. The infant was taken to foster care and the woman decided to fight for her child. She joined the community at Agape Home and utilized all of the support. She got clean, was eventually granted visitation and now has her daughter full-time. “It takes years, but she’s doing it,” Erchinger-Davis says.
To help even more people in Whatcom County, Nickisch joined Generation Forward, which tackles big problems locally using a five- to 20-year approach. This group of 90 community members works to solve the toughest issues like access to mental health care and early childhood education. As part of the funding committee, Nickisch and others are working to solve the issue of sustainable funding in an effort to help non-profits prosper and meet the needs of Whatcom County. “We as a community, in Whatcom County, are very strong,” Nickisch says. “There is considerable wealth in this area and we don’t flaunt it; we give it. People have amazing hearts and are willing to give if they know where it needs to go.”
Nickisch is active in local foundations to ensure that those in need get the support required to make positive changes. At Peoples Bank, he connects customers with community organizations that would be a good fit for them — like a worthy cause matchmaker. In the end, Nickisch says, “Giving back is an essential component to what makes us a community bank. We are dedicated to providing support to the communities where we live and work, and we do this because it’s the right thing to do. Helping the community in the best way possible ensures it’s here for tomorrow and more people can enjoy and flourish.”