New CEO seeks to make Whatcom Boys & Girls Clubs a full community resource

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 19, 2013 

Heather Powell

Heather Powell, the new CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Whatcom County talks to Cassie Cohen 6, left, and Hailey Hoobler, 6, during snack time at the Bellingham Boys and Girls Club Thursday afternoon, Dec. 5, 2013.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

Heather Powell, the new CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Whatcom County, does not lack for energy or enthusiasm.

She rolled into Bellingham at 2 p.m. on Halloween after a drive of more than 2,000 miles from Wisconsin. At 4 p.m., she, husband Dan and 10-year-old daughter Gracia were joyfully trick-or-treating in Fairhaven.

"It was so much fun, absolutely wonderful, how many families were out and how great the people and business community in Fairhaven received them," Heather said. "It was a great first day in Bellingham for all of us together."

She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and grew up in Janesville, Wis., where she knew 2012 vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.

Powell, 38, is a former elementary school teacher who served the previous three years as CEO of the Door County Boys and Girls Club in Sturgeon Bay, Wis.

Last summer, Dan Powell became CEO of the Whatcom Family YMCA. At the time, Heather did not know she would also become leader of a local human services organization.

Question: Heather, how fortunate do you feel to join your husband here?

Answer: I feel so extremely fortunate to be here in this capacity. The opportunity developed after Dan took his job. We're a two-career family, and I had been prepared to spend several more months in Wisconsin with Gracia until I found work.

Q: What was your favorite program at the Door County Boys and Girls Club?

A: We had one chartered club with a teen center and an elementary site, with about 250 members in all (now she oversees five distinct clubs with about 6,000 members). I was like chief cook and bottle washer. I got the idea to invite five children, 5 to 10 years old, to prepare a full dinner with me from scratch in our kitchen for about 50 members every Monday during the school year. We did that for two years.

Q: How did the children like it?

A: I found out they loved it! The children felt a great sense of pride and accomplishment. I also found out that while we worked, they would tell me stories of their lives. We loved the interaction. It was very educational, such as teaching the children how to set tables and serve the meal. The meal was mostly for other children, although we invited families of the five children to see how well they had prepared the meal.

Q: What else to you especially remember with fondness?

A: We developed a basic needs program. If a child needed something, it became our goal to provide it, such as winter boots, snow pants, underwear, socks, whatever. We didn't want children to go without necessities. We asked the kids to write us "Dear Santa" letters in November and we learned of needs. Some of those letters would break your heart. Kids would ask for things like blankets, hats, mittens, food.

Q: How did you fulfill their needs?

A: I went out to donors in the community (about 27,000 people), many of them individuals, and they were very generous. In many cases, they were happy to see someone had taken on the task of helping kids get what they really needed.

Q: Was sports a big part of your Door County experience?

A: No, we weren't involved in sports programs the way the Whatcom County Boys & Girls Clubs are. But I was a soccer player, swimmer and softball player in high school, so I'm very familiar with sports. I'm glad our clubs can serve as vehicles to provide the kids with sports opportunities.

Q: What are some of your primary goals here?

A: As CEO, I really want to explore community partnerships, and I want to get to know each of the communities and areas we serve. I want to help open doors to create great opportunities for kids and their families.

I also want to establish partnerships with schools so we can help enhance the academic achievement gap. I would like for our communities to see our clubs as a complete resource. We want to be viewed as a resource for youth empowerment.

Q: How do you see your biggest challenge?

A: I think our biggest challenge will be enacting positive change but at a pace that won't scare people away. I feel it's my privilege to go to work every day!

Michelle Nolan is a Bellingham freelance writer.

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