For the third year in a row, WECU is announcing its Education First grant awardees. Two-year grants totaling $110,000 will be distributed to local nonprofits whose work coincides with the credit union’s historical mission. “WECU was founded as a teacher’s credit union in 1936, so this is a nod to our history as an educational financial cooperative,” says Education First Advisory Panel Chair, Virginia Gustke.

This year, the voting advisory panel determined that Whatcom Literacy Council would be among the grant recipients. “They’re a nonprofit that empowers adult learners to achieve goals and improve their lives through literacy,” Gustke says. “And like all the groups that we’ve brought to the forefront this year, they’ve shown such incredible impact when it comes to reaching underserved families.”

Another recipient, Futures Northwest, is a growing nonprofit that provides mentorship for high school students that want to pursue a career or their college dreams, but find barriers to overcome. “They may be first-generation college students and need additional support to navigate their way through some of those hurdles,” says Gustke. “This was an opportunity to make a big difference for the future of those students.”

Futures Northwest helps guide older students toward college and career goals. Photo courtesy WECU

WECU is also funding Wild Whatcom, and its ‘EdVentures’ program, in particular. “It’s built into local public schools and integrates outdoor education with a traditional classroom curriculum, specifically for underserved first, second and third graders,” Gustke says. “With COVID, students have learned more from home, spending even more time indoors, looking at screens. The ability to promote learning outside spoke to parents on our panel who really understand this struggle.”

After a year spent learning at home, Wild Whatcom’s EdVentures program is getting kids out and about. Photo courtesy WECU

With a similar goal in mind, this year’s final recipient is Explorations Academy, an alternative nonprofit school that focuses on education and the community responsibility of students who thrive best in an experiential setting. “It’s not your traditional classroom setting—these students are out exploring, and connecting their education to the outside world,” says Gustke. “The success stories of students who have benefitted from this experiential learning—those really tug at the heartstrings. If you step into the shoes of a parent whose child struggles in a traditional setting, then you know that alternative education is vital to our community.”

Explorations Academy is an alternative nonprofit school that focuses on students who thrive best in an experiential setting, which makes them a great match for WECU’s Education First program. Photo courtesy WECU

The positive outcomes of the programs WECU is funding have undoubtedly brought comfort to the members of the advisory panel, and they’re excited to share this news with the community. “It’s been a long year, especially with everything being virtual,” Gustke says. “WECU is proud of the work done by the panel to understand the challenges facing our community and the commitment these groups made towards a lasting impact on the future of Whatcom County students.”

Community struggles related to the pandemic also helped guide the decision-making process this year, as the advisory panel kept in mind that many service organizations are having a particularly hard time right now. “Education First is so important at a time like this, because things are uncertain for many nonprofits,” says Gustke. “In fact, as we looked at Explorations Academy, the panel learned that other alternative schools had closed their doors due to the pandemic, making it critical that we show support for our community’s non-traditional learners.”

Whatcom Literacy Council has been awarded $40,000 for the two-year grant period. Pictured are WLC Volunteer Board Member Thom Barthelmess and WECU Education First Advisory Panel Chair Virginia Gustke. Photo courtesy WECU

Every January, a request for proposals is published at and dozens of nonprofits submit their ideas. The Education First Advisory Panel, comprised of six WECU employees, meets to review and score the proposals. “It’s an opportunity to engage employees from across the credit union in determining the best use of our cooperative’s charitable dollars,” says Gustke.

Because the grants are given in a two-year cycle, last year’s recipients are also still on the minds of WECU employees. “ Funding for Max Higbee Center, Whatcom Family YMCA—and specifically their early learning centers—and Communities in Schools continues this year as well. “We are honored to continue our support of these nonprofits and commend them for overcoming the challenges of the pandemic,” Gustke says. “They should be proud, as we are, of the important work they are doing every day.”


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