Grant expands services for Whatcom’s homeless youth

Northwest Youth Services was recently awarded the Peoples Bank Impact Grant. The $25,000 grant will be used to add finishing touches to The Ground Floor, which provides services to youth experiencing homelessness in Whatcom County. The Ground Floor is located in the basement of the First Congregational Church on Cornwall.

Since 1976 Northwest Youth Services has helped improve the lives of thousands. The Ground Floor is an extension of their services that opened in February 2019. The new 3,445 square foot facility is a major upgrade from their prior space on State Street. The old space was well-intended but was smaller and crowded, said Emilio Vela, Jr., Executive Director of Northwest Youth Services.

The new space allows for a more relational atmosphere where you have more opportunities to connect,” Vela said. “The Ground Floor signifies a considerable progression and enhancement of services to youth experiencing homelessness in this community.”

The facility offers a kitchenette, three bathrooms, showers, quiet rooms, donated clothing and guidance counselors to help youth transition out of homelessness. About seven staff members work at The Ground Floor and help youth find opportunities in employment, housing and education. Northwest Youth Services employs 53 people total between Whatcom and Skagit County, Vela said.

According to the 2018 Whatcom County Annual Report on Homelessness, there were 69 surveyed youth experiencing homelessness, ages 16 to 24. The grant will be used to fund several additional resources such as three new computers with new software, live-feed security cameras to improve safety and a community-use television, said Emerson McCuin, coordinator of The Ground Floor. Also, the staff was able to purchase more healthy food, sleeping bags, backpacks, and tents.

It was not an easy choice to decide who the grant went to this year, we had a lot of really great applications, said Lisa Hefter, executive vice president, and chief financial officer at Peoples Bank. “The Impact Grant is really a reflection of the commitment to our communities,” Hefter said. “We wanted to give a large amount to one organization to make a meaningful contribution.”

The Impact Grant was started in 2017. In addition to Northwest Youth Services, Peoples Bank has awarded the grant to Skagit Habitat for Humanity and Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services. The bank works with hundreds of charities but focuses their donations in areas such as human services, health services, education and the arts. The bank also gives each of their 295 employees in Whatcom County one day off a year to do community service for a charity of their choice, Hefter said.

While the facility is still in its early stages, there are plans to expand hours and outreach into surrounding counties, said Jenn Daly, development and communications director at The Ground Floor. “Were still in that capacity building and growth time,” Daly said. “I think we dream of seeing the space open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. or overnight shelter, but right now we are focused on smart and careful growth.”

The Ground Floor provides services to roughly 20-35 visitors a week and is expected to serve roughly 400 annually. “The upgrades to the space change the dynamic in a really positive way,” Daly said. “It helps us build connections based on trust so that youth can think bigger than tonight or tomorrow.”

To see a short documentary featuring interviews with Emilio Vela and Emerson McCuin please visit

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