The First Federal Community Foundation has spent the past five years supporting worthy causes—and in a big way. Funded by First Federal Bank, which has its roots in Clallam County, the foundation has grown to include 13 banking centers spread across Whatcom, Klallam, Jefferson and Kitsap Counties.

Jan Simon, executive director of the First Federal Community Foundation. Photo courtesy: First Federal Community Foundation

Twice a year, the foundation makes grants to non-profit organizations in all four counties. I recently spoke with the foundation’s Executive Director, Jan Simon, about this spring’s Whatcom County grant recipients—Lydia Place, the Whatcom County YMCA, and the Whatcom Community Foundation—and the important works they all do.

“We focus on making grants that create community support, that address the availability and access to affordable housing, to organizations that deliver economic development, and to community development projects,” says Simon. “In this grant cycle, we added one other thing: the unprecedented level of need caused by, or exacerbated by, the COVID-19 virus.”

Lydia Place

A long-time supporter of positive change in Bellingham, Lydia Place focuses on helping bring families out of homelessness. They’re currently working toward a big new step in that mission: Heart House, an 11-unit, permanent, supported housing project for homeless mothers with children, from prenatal to five years old. A $50,000 grant from the First Federal Community Foundation is being used to help break ground this summer.

Lydia Place will soon break ground for this housing and childcare location that will help families escape from homelessness. Photo courtesy: Lydia Place

“There’s a tremendous lack of affordable childcare in Whatcom County, and this will address that,” says Simon. “Lydia Place is an extraordinary organization, and in addition to housing, they’ll provide on-site childcare and supportive services to promote long-term stability and disrupt the cycle of homelessness. For a mom to be able to get out of homelessness, she needs to be able to go to work. And if so much of your income is going to childcare, how do you stay out of homelessness?”

Whatcom Family YMCA

Another $50,000 grant was made to the Whatcom Family YMCA, which is moving forward with a building project of its own. “The grant we made to the Whatcom Family YMCA is to support the construction of a new and larger early-learning facility that will help to alleviate the severe childcare shortage in Whatcom County,” says Simon.

A safe place for kids to grow and access to learning are two large parts of the YMCA’s mission in our community. Photo courtesy: Whatcom Family YMCA

The First Federal Foundation made a grant in 2018 to support scholarships to the Y’s after school programs, and Simon was proud to be able to contribute to this new endeavor. “I’m a member of the YMCA in my community, and one of the thing that I love about the Y is that there’s every size of person, there’s every kind of person… I’ve done swimming classes with women in burkas, and I just love that,” she says. “They live all of their values: everyone is welcome, every kind of family, and wherever people are coming from in terms of their orientation, or financial situation. The Y is even delivering food throughout Whatcom to those with food insecurity—they just do great work.”

Whatcom Community Foundation

The Whatcom Community Foundation is another recent grant recipient. “They have a Resilience Fund that they’ve used over the years for a number of different purposes,” says Simon. “Now it’s really focused on the need that’s been caused by the pandemic.”

The Whatcom Community Foundation has its finger on the pulse of what’s most needed, and of the organizations that are addressing those needs. Photo courtesy: Whatcom Community Foundation

With similar foundations in neighboring areas, and with so much need in so many different areas of life, the First Federal Community Foundation saw that it was possible to spread a lot of help through an already existing network. “One of the things that our board recognizes is the depth of knowledge of the Community Foundations in the four regions where we make grants. They have their finger on the pulse of what’s needed, and of the organizations that are addressing those needs. So the board decided to give $25,000 to each of the Community Foundations in each of our four counties.”

The need to do as much good work as possible is reflected in the number of calls for help the foundation receives. “We had 44 grant applications, and $1.6 million in financial requests this time, and we made $340,000 in grants,” Simon says. “In giving to the Community Foundation, we saw that other organizations that requested grant funding are actually being supported through the Community Foundation. By one degree of separation, they’re still benefiting from First Federal Foundation’s contribution.”

As we spoke, Simon was marking her one year anniversary with the foundation. “When I first started, I met the board members of the foundation and the bank and had breakfast with one of those board members. We chatted about the foundation, and I asked, ‘Do you have any advice for me?’ He said, ‘Do the most good you possibly can.’ He didn’t say, ‘Garner the most coverage,’ or ‘Be seen as the best in the eyes of the community.’ He just said to do the most good you possibly can. What better goal is there for one’s work?”

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