Foster care nonprofit takes over Bellingham indoor playground facility Perch & Play

Foster care nonprofit takes over Bellingham indoor playground facility Perch & Play
Volunteer Coordinator Nichole Silva, left, Childcare Specialist Mikaela Chandler, center, and Ray Deck III stand in front of the Perch & Play sign. [Photo by Nick Graves]

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Filed on 20. Mar, 2017 in Contents, Features, News

Businesses and nonprofits aren’t usually after the same thing.

In Bellingham, however, one charity and one business are uniting under a common goal: to help out children and parents.

Skookum Kids purchased the indoor playground Perch & Play in January.

Skookum Kids is a nonprofit that helps foster kids and foster parents in Whatcom County.

Its main program, Skookum House, is a facility where kids just entering the foster care system can stay for a few days.

That gives social workers time to find the best possible foster parents for them.

That also means foster parents don’t get calls in the middle of the night to take in a child who has just entered the system.

“The mission of Skookum Kids is to make foster parenting easier,” President Ray Deck III said. He founded Skookum Kids in 2014, and it now has four staff members and 150 volunteers. “Foster parenting is a very difficult thing.

It’s not like other types of volunteering, he said, where you put your work in for a certain number of hours and leave and go home.

“You’re signing up to bring all of that work and the emotions associated with it and the bodily fluids associated with it into your home.”

Deck started Skookum Kids to help ease the burden.

“There is no way to make foster parenting easy,” he said. “But there are many ways to make foster parenting easier.”

Raleigh Kukes opened Perch & Play in 2012.

She was a single mom, and wanted to make a place where she and her daughter could hang out together.

The facility has an indoor playground, space for birthday parties, a preschool and a cafe.

“Reception from the community was wonderful,” she said.

Last year she started thinking about giving up the business.

She was moving out of Bellingham, and her daughter had grown up to the point where she wasn’t really interested in Perch & Play anymore.

“Once I was unable to make it fun for her, it wasn’t as appealing,” she said. “It was harder to continue doing it.”

The business also struggled to turn to a profit.

“It is a very seasonal business and I think that is one thing we struggled with is having support year-round,” she said.

She thought she could put the company toward something good.

“I think it’s a difficult business to operate as a for-profit and so I started thinking about the different organizations in town that could use it in more ways than it’s being used right now,” she said.

People she talked to kept bringing up Skookum Kids as a successful, growing nonprofit.

She approached them about taking over the business. It was great timing; the nonprofit was already on the lookout for a building with more office space.

Perch & Play has several underutilized rooms.

“I think that Ray’s got great energy. He’s got a great team of volunteers behind him,” Kukes said. “I have a lot of confidence in him and Skookum.”

All 11 of Perch & Play’s existing employees stayed on, and Deck said they’ll be hiring two more, to beef up the supervision on the playground.

Deck has big ideas for what to do with Perch & Play. Primarily, all those ideas will go toward supporting Skookum Kids’ main goal: helping out foster families.

Immediately, they introduced a membership program.

Before, parents could only pay a one-time entry fee every time they brought their kids to play.

In addition to that option, since Skookum Kids took over it has added monthly and annual membership options.

Foster families can get that membership at a discount — they’re invited to pay however much they can.

“My hope is to make Perch & Play the place where foster parents can find each other,” Deck said. Foster parenting can be an isolating job, he said.

Most of their existing friends or family don’t really understand the particular struggles of foster parenting, and there’s no natural gathering place where foster parents can meet each other.

“This place will become the defacto watering hole for foster parents,” he said.

Deck hopes Perch & Play can help solve other common challenges for foster parents. Childcare is a big issue.

When kids are placed with families suddenly in the middle of the school year, it’s a scramble to find childcare while parents are at work. Finding a qualified babysitter for a night out is also a struggle.

“It can be really difficult to find trauma-informed childcare,” Deck said.

Perch & Play already has the foundations to offer that.

“We have the preschool, which is just a hop, skip and a jump from all-day childcare,” he said.

While Deck was excited immediately about the idea of Skookum Kids taking over Perch & Play, not everyone at the nonprofit thought it was a good idea at first.

“This is a pretty big gamble that we’re making,” Deck said.

The business ran at a loss last year, Deck said, and Skookum Kids can’t afford to support it long-term if it’s not profitable.

At the same time, Deck was worried that taking over Perch & Play might detract from Skookum Kids’ main mission.

“We’re in the business of taking care of foster parents,” he said. “It’s not our mission to run a business.”

In the end, they decided that Skookum Kids was stable enough, that the risk was worth it.

Another concern is whether Perch & Play’s existing customers will still want to come to a place dedicated to foster kids.

Deck said people worried about that are making some assumptions that aren’t necessarily true.

“It assumes that foster kids and foster parents aren’t here already,” he said. “And that’s not true, there were lots of them here. They were just incognito.”

Because of privacy and safety concerns, foster families don’t tend to advertise their status, Deck said.

However, Deck said they are still dedicated to serving Perch & Play’s existing, dedicated customer base, and will be sensitive to any concerns they have.

Although to most parents and kids visiting, things should look the same as they always have.

“Our aspiration is to layer in our programming in a way that makes it invisible,” Deck said.

In the long-term, Deck said they might hire a business manager to run Perch & Play, so Skookum Kids’ efforts can be dedicated to running the nonprofit.

Eventually, Deck said, it would be great if Perch & Play could generate revenue for the nonprofit.

“Before we can think of that, we’d like it to stop losing money first,” Deck said. “I have great expectations for this space. I think it can really thrive.”

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IFRoZSBKb3VybmFsPC9saT48L3VsPg==