The Opportunity Council will celebrate its 50th anniversary in November—that is, 50 years of providing housing assistance, free meals, education, training and other services to poor individuals and families.
The organization started in 1965, after Lyndon Johnson’s Economic Recovery Act of 1964 created funding for similar organizations, called community action agencies, throughout the country.
The nonprofit has evolved in response to the recession, adding about 50 employees in the last eight years and creating new departments and consolidating others. More change is coming—In January, Greg Winter will take over as executive director.
Current executive director Dave Finet, who started leading the organization in 2006, is retiring. Winter started at the Opportunity Council in 2008 and currently leads the Whatcom Homeless Services Center, one of the organization’s six departments.
The Opportunity Council takes a three-pronged approach to providing services for those in need, Finet said.
“First you have to stabilize folks who are in crisis,” he said. “Then you work with them to develop skills to exit poverty and you work in the community to help create pathways out of poverty.”
In practice, that means the Opportunity Council’s services range from emergency housing and home energy services to early childhood education programs and job training.
“We’re providing, on one hand, emergency services to help someone pay their heating bill or to get shelter,” Finet said. “On the other hand we’re looking at creating systemic change. Our goal is that the kids in our early learning programs will not be our clients later on. We’re working both ends towards the middle.”
With the organization’s birthday approaching, the current and future directors sat down to talk about what has made the organization successful, what challenges it has overcome, and what the future holds.
BBJ: What Opportunity Council accomplishments are you most proud of?
Finet: For me three things come to mind. First is the work we’ve done around early childhood education, including building relationships with the seven school districts in Whatcom County to help us achieve our goal of preparing children for school. Another would be the impact we’ve had on a national level around energy efficiency with our low-income weatherization program. We’ve weatherized more than 7,000 households; we’ve saved literally millions of dollars and helped create healthier living environments for a lot of people. The third is we’ve made a significant impact on policy and legislation that has improved lives and helped meet basic needs.
Winter: I’m really proud of the work the Opportunity Council and community has done in reducing veteran homelessness. We really put a lot of focus on reducing the number of veterans living on the street or struggling with the housing crisis. The result of that has been a more than 60 percent decrease in veteran homelessness, which is a pretty big deal.
BBJ: Greg, do you plan to make any immediate changes when you take over as executive director?
Winter: Right now we’re in the middle of a strategic planning process with our board. The executive team at the Opportunity Council and members of the board of directors are planning out the future. So while I don’t imagine that there’s going to be any huge change in direction or mission, there may be areas of concentration that we want to focus on given what’s going on in the larger community and what our research shows. There may be some tweaks.
Finet: One thing about the environment that we work in is that the situations change all the time for the people we serve. We adapt to whatever changes the people we serve face.
BBJ: Dave, how has the Opportunity Council changed since 2006, when you took over as executive director?
Finet: It has changed in terms of the scope of services. Since I came on in 2006 we took on the challenge of the Whatcom Homeless Service Center and Greg came on to direct it.
Winter: The homeless services center is a centralized point of access for about 20 different homeless housing programs. We try to match people who are homeless to housing opportunities that are available in these different programs. They range from specialized emergency shelter programs to transitional housing programs to permanent housing programs. We use the private rental market as well as specialized nonprofit owned housing.
Finet: The Whatcom County Homeless Services Center was a shift in how we looked at providing homeless services in Whatcom County. We’ve also consolidated a couple of our departments at the agency and created a more robust early childhood services department. Early Learning and Family Services was two different departments that came together.
Since 2006 the recession was the biggest challenge and Opportunity Council as an organization went through some significant growth with federal and some state funding. The real challenge has been that, even though the economy has turned around for a lot of folks, things haven’t turned around for those folks at the bottom of the economic spectrum. A lot of those folks on the lower end of the economic spectrum are making less money. We’ve continued to see a high demand for our services.
Another big shift we’ve made is that about four years ago we started managing the East Whatcom Regional Resource Center out of Kendall. That has been really successful. We have a couple early learning classrooms out there and we really engage with the community in terms of providing services where people live.
BBJ: What challenges is the Opportunity Council currently facing?
Winter: Housing is one area where the economic factors have changed quite a bit. We have really low vacancy rates and rapidly escalating rents. That has created a challenge both for the people we serve, of course, as well as for us in delivering services. It’s harder to find inexpensive rental units for our clients, which is part of the service we provide.
We are seeing more rental housing being built but it’s not very affordable housing. Having more units will still help long-term—some people who can afford them will move into those more expensive units because they have amenities and other nice features. That will open up some lower-priced units closer to the people we serve.
Housing is one of those cross-cutting issues. It is something that’s weighing very heavily on my mind and on our partner organizations as well. I’m sure it will emerge from our strategic planning process as an area of continued focus.
BBJ: Are you optimistic about the future?
Winter: I’m very optimistic about our mission. We have a great track record of delivering really vital services to the community. And i’m optimistic because we innovate and find better and more cost-effective ways of doing things. Am I optimistic about the future of the economy and how the people that we serve will fare under that future? That’s a big unknown to me. The growth in income inequality is something that I’m very concerned about as it relates to our mission and the people we serve.
Finet: I think we get better and better all the time at the work we do. I’m really optimistic about the Opportunity Council and its effectiveness because I think it’s the right time to have Greg come on as executive director. Greg and the current departmental leadership is really doing a great job of innovating their services to look at the whole person and the whole family.
Opportunity Council’s 50th anniversary celebration
When: Thursday, November 12, 6:00 p.m.
Where: Mount Baker Theatre, 104 N. Commercial St., Bellingham.
What: A program celebrating five decades of community action.
Who: Featuring community leaders, elected officials, state Department of Commerce and Opportunity Council partners and supporters.
Cost: $10, available at the Mount Baker Theatre
Guest speaker: Ron Sims — a civic volunteer, former deputy secretary of HUD and former King County Executive.
Learn more at www.oppco.org.