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How Interfaith Coalition Makes A Difference

In Bellingham, sometimes we see the need, on downtown streets or on a cardboard sign held up at an intersection. More often, we can’t see it: the family huddled in a car, the schoolchild without a bed.

The need is great, and in Bellingham and throughout Whatcom County, the response is great, too. Ever wonder if all the volunteer hours and donated dollars make a difference? The success stories of those previously in need, who are now headed toward self-sufficiency or able to give back themselves, are many. Here are two.

ALL THE TOOLS YOU NEED

Bam! Bam! The cop hammered on the window of the rusty 1989 Mazda, parked in the far corner of an empty parking lot of a discount store south of Tacoma.

Bam! The cop struck the window again. “Get out of the car!”

Just before dawn on a July morning, the young man in dirty clothes curled up on the front seat slept on.

BAM! “Out of the car! Hands up!”

The young man stirred, rolled, and stretched one arm down off the seat.

“When I say hands up, I mean HANDS UP NOW!” The cop shouted.

Louis Tabor jumped awake to a police gun pointed at his face.

“I think the only reason he didn’t shoot me was he saw my son in the back seat,” Tabor (whose name has been changed for privacy) says now as he recalls that July morning in 2018. On that morning after the police encounter, Tabor drove with his son to Larrabee State Park off Chuckanut Drive in Whatcom County, turned in, and parked.

“The two of us hiked up to Fragrance Lake. I made a bed out of fir leaves, made a little fire. It was cold. I didn’t have a tent or anything. We had some food-bank food.”

The campfire triggered the appearance of a park ranger. When she learned Tabor’s battered old Mazda was out of gas, she came back with five gallons for him. Tabor went to the Opportunity Council in downtown Bellingham, a nonprofit that aids those in need. They sent him to Interfaith Coalition’s Family Promise of Whatcom County, and Tabor’s life began its pivot back toward self-sufficiency.“

For the first time, I felt people really actually cared about me,” Tabor says of his experience with Interfaith.

SUNDAY SCHOOL CLASSROOMS BECOME LIVING SPACES FOR FAMILIES

Interfaith Coalition is a group of 50 churches, a synagogue, and other partners in Whatcom County that work together to help families out of homelessness. Founded 38 years ago, this nonprofit now has 1,400 volunteers working in several programs that empower local folks to break the cycle of poverty.

In April 2018, Interfaith launched Family Promise of Whatcom County, a local version of a national program, to house four families at a time, usually in Sunday school classrooms turned into family bedrooms in area church buildings. (Family Promise of Skagit County, not affiliated with Interfaith Coalition, had launched its own local version a few years before.) Congregation members provide beds, healthful meals, homework help, and more. During the days, a van takes the families to the Family Promise Day Center house in north Bellingham, where they shower, leave for work or school, and work with a case manager in the on-site office to develop a long-term stability plan. The families rotate among churches, staying a week at each one.

Tabor and his son stayed in churches in Whatcom County for four weeks. “Family Promise is the true definition of its name,” he says. “It’s the promise I made to my son: We’re going to live like a family again. They make it come true.”

Tabor availed himself of every resource. He’s grateful for the healthcare and childcare. Three days a week, he went to WorkSource Whatcom, a partnership of employment-service agencies, and applied for jobs on Monster.com. “I’m a concrete finisher,” Tabor says. “I’ve built forms for bridges and tunnels. I finish concrete, do broom work, make it smooth on top.”

A call came in from Tradesmen International, a sort of temp agency that supplies craftsmen to contractors for short- or long-term work. The $20 per hour wage was good, but the obstacles were many. Tabor would have to come with his own tools. He owned none. The job interview was in Burlington, and his Mazda had died.

Interfaith’s Family Promise folks leapt into action. A call went up on Facebook, and within 24 hours Tabor owned a tool belt, hammers, rain gear, ear protection, pliers, wire cutters, screwdrivers, wrenches. A volunteer drove him to what was supposed to be a 20-minute interview, which morphed into a job offer and three-hour orientation. The volunteer waited for him.

Tabor was called to a job the next day. He had thought the jobsite was on a bus line. It wasn’t. Janie Pemble, outreach director of Interfaith, “drove me to work that day and saved my job,” he says. For that job at a Lake Whatcom house—Tabor calls it a mansion—his tasks including digging a 3-foot-wide ditch 25 yards, with pickax and shovel. The job was supposed to take three or four days. Tabor finished in two.

Interfaith had rustled up a donated car for Tabor, but he can’t drive because he doesn’t have a license, citing ticket trouble from Georgia, where his son’s mom lives. He’d driven previously without one, but the deal with Family Promise includes abiding by the law. So Tabor is confined to jobs where he can take a bus or catch a ride.

Tabor had to suspend work for a while to seek more permanent housing and settle his son, who’s in kindergarten. “I’m used to being the provider, but now I’m nurturer and provider. I signed up for parenting classes. My son had issues with transitions to school. His teacher is 21 years old; it’s her first year. He was in trouble for throwing books, kicking the teacher, running out of the school. I had to go to a meeting with the principal.”

But hope thrives. “With this job, I want to make it my career. I want to get my son into after-school programs, elevate his education, help him grow. I want to have a car, a well-paid job, and hopefully do something on the side with my artwork.” Tabor’s son is learning to swim at the Y, and Tabor would like to learn himself someday, too.

Within six weeks of engaging with Interfaith’s Family Promise, Tabor and his son moved into an apartment, part of a fourplex Interfaith owns. Rent is based upon what he can pay. They now have a home, a job, and a school. “This is all I needed to put me on track,” Tabor says. “Family Promise gave me a second chance to be a dad. I never expected to run into a place where goodhearted people volunteer.

“Family Promise and Interfaith are the best opportunity you can have to work on your goals and better yourself. They give you all the tools you need.”

USING HER GIFTS TO GIVE BACK

In 2006 Andie Whitewing was an English teacher at a university in Louisiana, close to finishing her PhD, when the bottom fell out. Her marriage had become unsafe, and in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, after the birth of her second child, it reached a crisis point. She fled with her 3-year-old and 15-month-old, heading toward the home of a long-time friend in Bellingham.

Whitewing and her toddlers, rocked by their own hurricane, lived with friends for a time before a local nonprofit directed the family toward Interfaith Coalition and housing. Even now, more than a decade later, Whitewing is grateful for her stay in Interfaith housing. “They said, ‘If you need anything, let us know,’ ” Whitewing says. “The day you move in, you get a $100 gift certificate to the grocery store. I used it that day to feed my kids.”

Case management and housing were critical in helping Whitewing identify resources, get daycare, and find work. Within two months, she landed a six-month job at Western Washington University and moved her family into their own market-based (not subsidized) apartment. The Western job ended but Whitewing found other jobs. Today she is a full-time, paid appraiser trainee at Follis Realty in downtown Bellingham. In three years she will become a certified general real estate appraiser and fully enter a well-paid profession.

“Interfaith was, in the immediacy of that transition, no less than a lifeline,” Whitewing says now. “It’s a powerful embodiment of love and compassion in our community, a testament to the hearts of the many who reside here and have founded or support the organization… It’s the synergy of many whose beliefs may be disparate, but who have united to realize their greater potential in the service of love.”

Interfaith’s and the larger community’s initial helping hand to Whitewing has been re-paid many times over. She is a speaker for Interfaith and some member congregations, where her story helps raise funds for others. At Interfaith’s March 2008 auction, her presentation resulted in the most funds raised at that event to date.

Today, nearly a third of Interfaith’s $650,000 annual budget results from the Hope Auction, on March 23 this year with a fundraising goal of $200,000. Interfaith is 97 percent funded by local donations.

“I’m happy to help,” Whitewing says. “I wish I could write a check for $55-grand but I can’t, so I use the gifts that have been given to me: speaking and singing.”

Whitewing, a vocalist and emcee, is using her music to help found and sustain a benefit series, “Light the Night.” It’s a three-hour showcase where musicians donate performances to benefit local causes. Launched in 2014 and recently revived with the partnership of musician Bill Sterling, with venue and staff donated by the Wild Buffalo House of Music, “Light the Night” is now a quarterly event.

Whitewing credits others in helping her navigate life here, citing the support of “friends who’ve become family” in maintaining stable housing for years despite this region’s affordability problem. “Only a portion of my ‘success’ comes from my labors. I acknowledge the importance of community.”

Her purpose is service, Whitewing says, and her greatest gift is her voice, whether used for writing, singing, or speaking.“We all have something to give. It’s not just money.”

Continue reading our Helping the Homeless feature here.

"'Family Promise is the true definition of its name. It’s the promise I made to my son: We’re going to live like a family again. They make it come true.'"