The First Federal Community Foundation believes in the mission and vision of the Whatcom Center for Early Learning (WCEL) and their cooperative, family-centered early interventions for children ages birth to three with developmental disabilities and delays. To that end, the foundation recently presented WCEL with a $50,000 check.

“Although Whatcom Center has been around for nearly 50 years, sometimes it feels like people don’t know who we are or what we do,” says Executive Director Mark Moder. “Getting a big grant like this helps get the word out about our mission to help infants, toddlers, and their families in Whatcom County.”

Barnyard is the theme of the new play yard under construction in Ferndale. Photo credit: Carol Lo

Growing partnerships with families, community building, and resource sharing are the bedrock WCEL is built upon—both in the Big Blue House in Bellingham and now its Little Brick House in Ferndale.

“Whatcom Center for Early Learning staff members are overjoyed to receive a generous grant from First Federal Community Foundation, which has helped us to open our second facility to serve infants and toddlers with developmental delays,” says WCEL Outreach and Development Director Erin Malone. “This gift has allowed WCEL to purchase and remodel a neighborhood home, helping to make us a part of the local Ferndale community.”

First Federal Community Foundation Executive Director Jan Simon and First Federal’s CEO Matt Deines recently presented the center with the donation.

Susan Hemingson and Aki Yada review plans for the new play area. Photo credit: Carol Lo

“Isolation hurts families and can lead to anxiety and depression,” says Simon. “WCEL works hard to provide a sense of community, and First Federal Community Foundation is pleased to support that mission.” First Federal Community Foundation’s support is especially welcome because most donations WCEL receives are around $100.

Whatcom Center for Early Learning provides speech and motor therapy as well as specialized instruction for infants and toddlers, and also offers to help connect families with other services in the county. While much of the work takes place in families’ homes, the center also holds classes and play groups at both locations.

The center often hears from families that parenting can be lonely at times—and that parenting children with disabilities or delays can be even more so. One of the center’s goals is to bring families together through play and parenting groups to strengthen a sense of belonging and connection with one another and with their community.  

WCEL also offers individual support and group classes in how parents can best advocate for their children and for specific issues such as feeding, preparing for preschool, parental rights, when to move to mainstream transitioning in their school district and understanding their insurance.

Whatcom Center for Early Learning was founded in the 1970s. Photo credit: Carol Lo

All WCEL therapists are highly educated, most have master’s degrees, and two have PhDs. The work they do with the kids is presented as fun, but is also highly targeted, such as a motor therapist to help with equipment that can work in a home setting, like wheelchairs.

The center also brings together typically developing children and children with disabilities so they can learn from the other. “Everyone has different abilities,” says Malone. “It’s just that some challenges are visible, and some are not. Bringing all types of children and families together helps prepare both for experiences they will face later in life.”

Early intervention is key to successfully helping children with developmental delays. Many children (as many as 30 percent) who are helped by the Whatcom Center for Early Learning catch up to their typically developing age group and can maximize their life potential. “We work with kids up to three years old, which is the time that the brain is most malleable, and you can re-write the neuro pathways,” says Moder. “Eighty-five percent of our brain is formed by age two [so] early intervention is key.”

Matt Deines, Troy Wills, Mark Moder, Erin Malone, Norm Tonina, Derek Brown and Jan Simon at the WCEL presentation. Photo credit: Carol Lo

The need to expand services is great. Last year, the center served 180 children who qualify for services by being diagnosed with at least a 25 percent developmental delay; this year the number is 225. In five years, that number is expected to rise to 450 children per year. The staff of 34 at WCEL are excited to be able to expand and partner with new families in Ferndale.

First Federal Community Foundation’s generous financial support has helped renovate the Ferndale house, which will have more than 3,200 square feet of space for therapists and administration; a separate 1,500-square-foot children’s center will house playgroups. Both the children’s center and the backyard park will be specifically designed to accommodate toddlers with delays and disabilities, and will include rubberized track and no stairs.

Whatcom Center for Early Learning was founded almost 50 years ago by Anne Brown, with the goal to keep children out of institutions and make parents feel supported. With the help of Foundations like First Federal’s, her vision continues to thrive and benefit children in our community.

“Every dollar makes such a big difference to us and the work we do,” says Moder.

Malone adds: “It also highlights the success of partnerships between the private and nonprofit sectors, which benefits everyone.”


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