In 1981, Pastor Don Clinton from Christ the Servant Lutheran Church convened a meeting of over 40 religious and social service leaders from around Whatcom County. A simple goal: invite all local religious groups to find ways to serve our neighbors in need. Safety net social programs lost vital funding. Our community needed help.
The result: the creation of Interfaith Coalition of Whatcom County, a nonprofit organization that pooled the resources of many of the area’s faith communities. Interfaith partnered with social service agencies, like the Opportunity Council, to help bridge unmet needs of people in poverty. Congregations donated $3,500, and Christ the Servant offered office space for the fledgling organization.
The Birth of Medical, Dental and Mental Health Services
The needs were (and are) overwhelming. Initially, Interfaith helped reorganize and relocate the Bellingham Food Bank. Working with the Opportunity Council and the Whatcom County Medical Society, Interfaith created a program for people to receive low-cost care from community physicians. Interfaith Medical Care began in September 1982 and served 16 people in its first three days.
The next focus was the profound issue of homelessness. Interfaith, now located in its new (and current) office at First Congregational Church, financially supported the Opportunity Council’s Opportunity House in 1983. Other programs Interfaith supported during these years included a daycare program for children of homeless parents, Maple Alley Inn’s free community meals, and Trinity House, a shelter for pregnant teen mothers.
The demand for affordable health care resulted in opening the Interfaith Clinic in 1987.Children’s dental care, funded partially by Interfaith Coalition, joined the clinic services by the end of 1992 and in 1997, services expanded to include behavioral health care. With the phenomenal growth of the health center, the Interfaith Community Health Center relocated to its current site on Unity Street in 2001 and became a stand-alone community health center. Satellite clinics were opened in Ferndale and Point Roberts to increase access to county residents.
Today, Interfaith Community Health Center provides vital services to over 16,000 patients every year. As part of our commitment to healthcare, we continued to raise money for the Center through 2014. Now, both the Coalition and the Health Center are doing their own fundraising and focusing on our unique missions. Beginning this year, we now direct all our resources into our signature programs. The Health Center does the same. The Center has a new name, too: Unity Care NW.
We see this as a positive and natural evolution of a parent organization — Interfaith Coalition — successfully identifying a community need, developing solutions, and finally celebrating the launching of the Health Center on its own. The need for housing and healthcare is greater than ever, and we feel confident that we can each meet those needs with resources directed to our own missions.
The need for healthcare and housing often go hand-in-hand. The constant need for affordable homes, coupled with chronic homelessness in Whatcom County, led Interfaith to the development of temporary housing for families in crisis.
Interfaith purchased a single-family home on a large lot in 1993 and built a four-unit apartment buiding in Bellingham to offer transitional housing for families. Case management services were integral in moving families towards self-sufficiency.
By 2002, Interfaith pioneered a new model in homeless housing: we partnered with a member congregation, Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, which provided a parish house for families, and Lydia Place, which handled case management. Another parish-owned partnership house with Garden Street United Methodist Church was added a couple of years later. Then in 2006, members of First Christian Church moved a home that was slated for demolition to their church property to be used for family housing. The home was renovated by many volunteers to become the eighth unit of family housing. Read more here…
Caring for families outside Bellingham, Interfaith bought a home in Ferndale in 2010 The home was expanded into a triplex in 2014, with strong support from the entire community and many congregations. Expanding housing services to the county makes it easier for children to stay in north county schools and avoid the trauma of changing schools during an already stressful time. Read more here…
Interfaith’s Family Housing Program is unique because it allows families to stay together. Two-parent families, teenage boys and single fathers with children are separated in group homeless shelters. Except for a limited number of motel vouchers, Interfaith Coalition homes are the only option where every family can stay together. And: the program works! We are breaking the cycle of homelessness for families and their children. With three months of Interfaith Coalition housing and support, 85% of families find stable housing.
Could Interfaith do more to shelter the homeless? With the commitment of many volunteers in 2004, Interfaith opened two Severe Weather Shelters. These provide overnight safety and shelter to homeless men and women when weather becomes life-threatening. Click to read more here.
A Food Outreach Program
A longtime community program, CAST (Coffee and Sandwiches Together), began at Faith Lutheran Church as an outreach to street people for over 15 years. It joined Interfaith’s programs this year. This program provides simple meals and fellowship four evenings a week, in partnership with St John’s Lutheran Church. Over 100 volunteers prepare and serve the meals. Click to read more here.
Other Interfaith Coalition programs include an annual winter coat drive with distribution at five county sites and a gift program for homeless families at Christmas time.
If there is one constant about Interfaith Coalition, it is change. Through the years, Interfaith has identified gaps in services and nimbly developed effective programs to meet those needs. With our member congregations, Interfaith has remained true to our roots, a vehicle for diverse faiths to collaborate and to serve our neighbors. Lifting up people from poverty and despair continues, with Interfaith finding pathways to deliver resources in the most efficient, cost-conscious and caring manner. For over 30 years, Interfaith continues to make a difference in this community and the lives of its people.