By Emily Hamann
The Bellingham Business Journal
Riannon Bardsley always knew she wanted to help people.
When she was a teenager, Bardsley volunteered at a crisis clinic in Seattle, taking calls from other teens who were in crisis.
“There was something about that experience that just hooked me,” she said. “All of the sudden I understood my privilege.”
Ever since, she’s been dedicated to helping those who aren’t as lucky as she is.
She first got on with Northwest Youth Services, which provides housing and services to at-risk, runaway and homeless young adults and teenagers, nine years ago. Then, when the organization was in trouble, she stepped in as interim executive director. She never left.
She was a manager of the housing program when the recession hit, and the agency lost a lot of its funding.
They had to cut entire departments and services, and laid off 25 people. Eight people left in just one month.
“It was kind of a blood bath,” she said.
She was 26 when she stepped in as interim executive director.
“I had only been in management for a year prior to that,” she said. It was a daunting task, but “I definitely knew I had the passion and determination to try and figure it out.”
Bardsley, the board of directors and remaining staff pulled together to weather recession.
“We just figured it out. We’re feisty,” she said. “If you just believe you can do it and you don’t let fear stop you you can do a lot.”
In the process of building it back up, Bardsley has refined and focused the agency’s services. Since 2010 the agency’s budget has more than doubled, and it has gone from serving 145 young people in 2009 to more than 1,000 projected by the end of this year.
She is also advocating for interests of homeless and at-risk young people in the community and the state. She is on the steering committee of the Whatcom County Coalition to End Homelessness, which sometimes involves making the case to state legislators to direct funds to help out Whatcom County’s populations in need.
She is also on the City of Bellingham’s community advisory board, which is part of the city’s planning department. The group meets and makes recommendations to the city.
“I’ve really enjoyed being a part of that group and that community and having really tough conversations,” she said.
She also recently was asked to join the Whatcom/Bellingham Domestic Violence Commission.
So many of the people her agency serves have been impacted by domestic violence, she said, whether directly or indirectly.
Ending domestic violence and investing in making families strong and stable would be a big step toward making sure young people don’t end up on the street to begin with.
“They are no different than any one of us; they just didn’t get the lucky biology or lucky genes or the lucky family,” she said. “They just didn’t have a lot of the basic stuff that some of us get.”