Often life delivers change at the worst possible time and we scramble to cope. Sometimes life delivers the next chapter at the perfect time — when you’re open to change and ready to do something completely new. The latter happened to Kevin Stray a few years ago.

Stray lives in Fairhaven and has a business degree from St. Martin’s College in Lacey. Having pursued a career in pro golfing, he was ready to hang up his clubs, but was way too young to retire. His wife, local veterinarian Kris Johnson, had started a veterinary outreach to unhoused people, and her church was involved with the Family Promise, an interfaith group of churches that take turns hosting unhoused families and connecting them with services.

Johnson brought Stray to a Family Promise dinner where Stray met Trudy Shuravloff, the executive director of the Whatcom Dream. After a lively discussion, Stray asked Shuravloff what he could do to help. Shuravloff challenged him to sit in on a financial empowerment class at the Lighthouse Mission; she didn’t really think he would come. But he did — and he kept showing up. He volunteered to teach the class at the Mission for a year and a half, then took a permanent job at the Whatcom Dream as an individual counselor and operations manager. The change he needed in his life had arrived.

The Whatcom Dream office, just off Ohio Street. Photo credit: Kristin Noreen

The job is perfect for Stray, with his natural predisposition to help people, his problem-solver mindset, and even some sales ability. “You have to convince people to make hard choices in their own best interest,” he says, “and that’s not easy. You have to make them see their own vision of the good life and believe they can get there.”

The Whatcom Dream Difference

Getting your financial act together is a popular sales pitch; we’re bombarded with ads for agencies that can allegedly help us reduce our debt and repair our credit. What makes the Whatcom Dream different?

“Our vision of success is different,” Stray says. “Usually, you think of success in terms of getting a better job, buying a car, and eventually buying a house — the usual American Dream stuff. At The Whatcom Dream, we want that too, but it all starts with stability. Our baseline is to nail down housing, health care, food, and enough savings to level out the bumps in the road and maintain that stability.”

The Whatcom Dream’s goal is to help people get in control of their financial lives, so they aren’t just surviving from month to month, but thriving.

Most people who come to the Whatcom Dream are working — about 75 percent have jobs. They generally don’t own homes, are using credit to get by (if they even have access to it), and drive old cars. They’re surviving month-to-month and want to stop feeling like they’re flying a plane with its tail on fire. The rest of their clients enter the programs “very unstable,” unhoused or in the social service system.

Tuesday morning staff meeting (left to right, Kevin Stray, Trudy Shuravloff, Jenn Sonker). Photo credit: Kristin Noreen

“Our economic system does not foster stability,” says Stray. “Many of life’s events are destabilizing — job loss, divorce, medical bills, all kinds of things — and once you lose your stability, it’s hard to come back from that. The deck is stacked against you.”

The Whatcom Dream is about helping people in crisis to take control of their lives and start living again.

“We get everything through our doors: evictions, collections, addictions, trauma, abuse, people with kids in foster care, trafficking victims — and there is hope for everyone.” Stray believes there is no problem that can’t be dealt with, with the right help and determination. The Whatcom Dream has volunteers from different areas of expertise to help with a multitude of things, even a counselor who assesses whether clients have the best health plan available to them for their needs.

How the Whatcom Dream Helps

A typical client starts by taking one of the financial empowerment classes offered for adults, seniors, and teens. When they’re ready to make their own empowerment plan, “that’s when the hard discussions start,” Stray says. They look at expenses versus income and look for opportunities to balance the two. “We don’t tell people what they have to do; they have have to cover their fixed expenses, like housing, transportation, and phone, but discretionary expenses are determined by the client’s values. A streaming service may be discretionary to one person, but for someone else, it might be their only entertainment source.”

Clients enter the program in various states of receptiveness. “About half are ready to take our advice,” says Stray. “We don’t take defeat personally. Financial problems come with embarrassment, shame, guilt, and regret. We have to be patient while people let go of the past, and those emotions give way to hope. We believe there is a solution to every problem, and we have a good track record of changing people’s paths.”  

The classroom where financial empowerment classes are held. Photo credit: Kristin Noreen

“There’s too much emphasis with most programs on credit card debt and not saving,” Stray says. “It goes so much deeper than that. There are IRS issues, child support, landlord disputes — some people need help figuring out Social Security and Medicare.”

“We meet you where you are,” he continues. “We don’t care about mistakes you’ve made, we’re not here to judge; we’re here to help you move forward.”

The Whatcom Dream is not affiliated with any religious organization. Faith personally motivates some of the staff and board members, and the organization has relationships with the Lighthouse Mission, Northlake Church, and the Interfaith Coalition. “We’ll work with any org that’s in the helping business,” says Stray.

Stray is excited about a new teen program for financial empowerment, designed to teach life skills. It started with Northwest Youth Services in Mount Vernon, working with at-risk youth ages 18 to 25 who were experiencing homeless or instability. The program is now moving north to Bellingham and has the potential to break cycles of generational poverty, allowing young people to take control of their lives while they’re just getting started on their own.

The Whatcom Dream offers educational events to teach people about poverty in our community, and they often present to groups, clubs, or businesses.  

Kevin Stray in his office where he counsels individual clients. Photo credit: Kristin Noreen

Even on a meager budget, with a modest office located in the light-industrial part of town, the organization’s emphasis on respect is reflected in their inviting lobby and sparkling clean and well-appointed washroom — there is abundant spare toilet paper and a basket of free sanitary products for women. Clients are made to feel like they deserve nice things. “That’s Trudy,” Stray says with a smile.

Executive Director Trudy Shuravloff started out with the Whatcom Dream 17 years ago as a single mom participating in a financial empowerment class. She was so energized by her own results that she wanted to spread the joy.

Administrative Assistant Jennifer Sonker is a well-known face in the animal rescue world, running the nonprofits Shadow’s Forever Friends and the Zoe Fund with her husband Jason. Bookkeeper Marin Schy rounds out the office staff, and seven dedicated board members, four volunteer program coordinators, and many volunteers comprise the team. The Whatcom Dream gets bigger by the day, as it gathers momentum and changes lives.

The Whatcom Dream
1846 Iron Street in Bellingham
Email: info@thewhatcomdream.org

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