How These Seattle Nonprofits Are Making a Difference
Nonprofits large and small tackle our region’s problems
By Danny O’Neil December 29, 2022
Philanthropy requires focus, efficiency and the ability to marshal resources to change a situation.
Sounds complicated, but philanthropy is also very basic: an act of humanity that starts with one person attempting to make this world a better place for someone else. Giving of yourself. It is the seed for nonprofit work, the bedrock that can be easy to overlook because of the big and bold initiatives that have made Seattle a center for global philanthropy.
But good work doesn’t just happen. It takes good people acting on their better selves to solve a problem or to create an opportunity. A desire to make housing more affordable, for example, or to make higher education more accessible. A recognition of the need to provide mental health care to our most vulnerable. A belief in the transformative powers of art.
At a time of year when so many practice the act of giving, we look at four of the top issues facing our region — mental health, housing, education and the arts — and examine the motivations, challenges and successes that have come from a handful of both large and small organizations working to solve these challenging problems.
MENTAL HEALTH: Compass Health is one of Washington state’s 30 largest nonprofit organizations, providing mental health care to 17,000 people in western Washington and employing more than 600 professionals.
Those numbers provide a sense of the scope. They don’t tell the full story. Same goes for the new facility that Compass Health is working to fund in Everett. It will cost $14 million and will provide care for 1,500 people annually by providing 30,000 points of service. These are industry measurements, though. They’re benchmarks that document the intensive needs of the patients. What gives you a better idea of the importance is to describe what often happens now to someone experiencing a mental-health crisis.
“They may fall into the least appropriate and most expensive bucket of care,” says Tom Kozaczynski, Compass Health’s chief advancement officer.
That may mean winding up in the emergency room, escorted there by a police officer who will be required to wait until a patient is admitted. Then, the person will be treated by emergency-room staff that will try to manage their mental-health crisis while also treating the physical health needs of other patients in an extremely high-stress environment.
Compass Health wants to build a better way. The new facility in Everett will provide a different option with a voluntary triage unit with 16 beds where the patient can be dropped off provided there wasn’t a physical injury, a place where a mental-health crisis can be treated specifically rather than managed as a general emergency.
“They would be in a safe environment with competent critical care,” Kozaczynski says.
This isn’t just about more resources. It’s about creating a better approach to caring for the mental-health needs of some of our region’s most vulnerable people. A large number of Compass Health patients are on Medicaid. Many are unhoused.
Compass Health announced the capital campaign in October. It already has commitments for more than 70% of the $14 million it is seeking to raise. The facility will be built on its Everett campus, where it opened an 82-unit housing development last year called Andy’s Place.
For many people, treatment for a mental-health disorder is not the end of their journey, but the beginning. Medication can help. So can therapy. But mental-health challenges can last a lifetime for some people, which make recovery an equally important part of the process.
Hero House, a much smaller organization, just works. That’s true in a quite literal sense. Members are expected to fulfill responsibilities when they show up to one of the three clubhouses in the Puget Sound area. Hero House works in a more figurative way, too, providing a community and a sense of purpose for those whose lives have been interrupted by mental illness.
“Vocational recovery is at the core of what we do,” says Kailey Fiedler-Gohlke, CEO of Hero House Northwest.
This isn’t morning coffee followed by an art class and group discussion. This is vocational therapy that includes community outreach, accounting, meal preparation and sometimes even newspaper production. The members of Hero House work with staff as equals.
“It really is focused on running the organization,” Fiedler-Gohlke notes, “providing tasks to really help people process and be able to contribute to something.”
The template for the clubhouse can be traced back to Manhattan in the 1940s, and there are now 320 clubhouse facilities globally. From 2014 to 2017, there were just two in the state of Washington: one in Bellevue and the other in Spokane. Now, there are 14, including clubhouses in Seattle and Everett.
“[There’s a] huge investment in behavioral health out here in Washington,” Fiedler-Gohlke says.
HOUSING: The housing crisis in Puget Sound is an emergency that requires immediate action.
That’s something the congregation of a Redmond church learned in 2006 when a woman entered and asked where she could sleep. That led to the formation of The Sophia Way, a nonprofit that today offers more than 60 beds across two different shelters on the Eastside of Seattle, which are dedicated to providing women safe and secure places to sleep.
The housing crisis in Puget Sound is also a systemic issue that needs a long-term fix. That’s something Bellwether Housing has tried to address since it was formed in 1980 with the goal of providing safe, affordable housing for those who worked in Seattle. That challenge has become more pronounced and more important given the spike in local real-estate prices.
“Our organization operates on the theory that in order to have a community that thrives, we need to have housing that is affordable for the people,” says Susan Boyd, Bellwether’s CEO.
Housing needs to be affordable for people with low-paying jobs and increasingly those with moderate-paying jobs, affordable for service-sector employees and artists, and those who care for children and the elderly, as well as affordable for immigrants and refugees, and people trying to get back on their feet.
“All of those people need to have a safe, secure, affordable place to live for a healthy community,” Boyd explains. “People need that foundation of safe, stable, quality, dependable housing in order for them to thrive.”
Bellwether Housing is the largest provider of affordable housing in the Pacific Northwest. It serves 4,000 residents annually in King County with 2,400 units of housing across 35 buildings. Cedar Crossing is the newest of those, a development with 254 units that opened in September near the light-rail station.
Affordable housing — or more importantly the lack thereof — is one of the key factors that explains the prevalence of homelessness in a major metropolitan area. At least that was the conclusion of Seattle authors Gregg Colburn and Clayton Page Aldern. Their book, “Homelessness is a Housing Problem,” looked at all of the factors typically cited to explain the problem from the lack of social services to drug use to income mobility and found that the lack of affordable housing was the best explanation for why the rates of homelessness were so much higher in a city like Seattle compared to Miami or Chicago.
Finding the cause doesn’t make the need any less acute, though. There are not just hundreds but thousands of people seeking a safe place to sleep in the Puget Sound area, and for 10 years now, The Sophia Way has been providing that place for single women first at a shelter in Bellevue and now at a second facility in Kirkland.
It started with a question. In 2006, a woman entered a Redmond church and asked where she could sleep. That led to a day center for women at the Bellevue First Congregational Church. In 2008, there were eight mats to provide sleeping accommodations. In 2012, Sophia’s Place became a permanent part of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Bellevue, offering capacity for 21 women. Each was given a private cubicle for safety and storage, a raised bed and six months of shelter and social services.
Dietra Clayton, managing executive director of The Sophia Way, and Zee Peters, the executive director of development and engagement, explain the organization’s guiding principle in a statement: “We focus on helping women have a better quality of life, and while there are ongoing challenges, such as insufficient affordable housing, we continue to work towards making homelessness rare and brief, envisioning a community where every woman has a place to call home.”
In 2017, The Sophia Way began its vehicle outreach program for women and families living in their cars. In 2020, a second shelter opened: Helen’s Place offered 48 beds, on-site mental-health services and was named after the organization’s founder, Helen Leuzzi.
In 2021, The Sophia Way provided shelter to 423 women, 85 of whom moved into their own homes afterward.
EDUCATION: The Technology Access Foundation didn’t set out to develop a new model for public education.
Its initial plan was to prepare high-school students of color for internships in the tech industry. Trish Millines Dziko knew what the students would need. She’d spent 15 years working in that sector at companies like the Computer Sciences Corporation, Hughes Aircraft Co. and Fortune Systems. She worked at Microsoft, where she was a program manager, and then worked in diversity. She had even coordinated the company’s internship program for high-school students.
“I knew that high-school kids could do this work,” she said. “So it was really all about getting them the opportunity.”
It started in 1996 as an after-school program heavy in STEM, but turned out preparing high-school students for those internships and the college opportunities that followed was just the start.
“The thing that struck us the most and the hardest,” Dziko says, “the most data-centered thing is when our kids were going to college — and all of them went to college — they couldn’t major in computer science and engineering right away.”
Often, the students were missing the math prerequisites because they had been in a lower math track in high school. They had to double back on math classes before they could start on those majors.
“So here we have these amazingly brilliant kids,” Dziko says, “who have been doing internships, writing code, managing networks and designing websites. Some were even on the marketing teams in places and essentially the school is telling them they’re not worthy of a higher level of math.”
The crux of the problem was baked into the public-education system. That’s why a program to prepare high-school students for opportunities in the tech sector became a project to build a new more collaborative model for education that would be capable of eliminating those race-based disparities.
The Technology Access Foundation now comanages two different public schools — one in Federal Way and the other in Seattle. It has partnerships with six other schools with plans to add three more schools annually until the year 2036. It also provides professional development for teachers.
The TAF model incorporates a STEM curriculum and is structured around project-based learning. This builds community. It incorporates educational technology and recognizes the importance of college and career readiness. It does not track students but limits class size to make sure teachers can have an individual relationship with students. And at the core it prioritizes the students. They’re the North Star.
“The first thing we do is build community,” Dziko says. “Having kids build community, and that’s what their projects are about. Understand: Who are your classmates? And for teachers: Who are you teaching? Get to know your kids because they have a voice, and you need to bring out that voice.”
Public education needs to be more than just access. It’s about recognizing and meeting the needs of students, especially those students whose circumstances make education more difficult.
There are all sorts of things that can interrupt the educational path. Maybe it was economic necessity. A student needed to work to support themselves or their family. Perhaps it was lack of housing or foster care. Maybe it was behavioral or health related. Or maybe high-school students just weren’t ready to think about going to college as they neared graduation because life is very, very hard for far too many young people. Northwest Education Access has built itself into something that can help them resume that education.
“Our mission is really focused on servicing students that are on nontraditional pathways to and through higher education,” says Neena Viel, the organization’s director of development and communications.
Students in their final two years of high school have access to plenty of college-prep support, but this is an incredibly narrow window of time. Northwest Education Access works to broaden that support for young people who are interested in college, but whose circumstances made that difficult.
“There’s this gap for students that are ages 16 to 29 that are grappling with these big life conflicts,” Viel says. “They are working really hard. They’re just not necessarily doing it in the K-through-12, college-after kind of a way, which just isn’t fitting so many of our lives right now.”
It’s estimated there are 20,000 young people in King County between the ages of 16 and 24 whose education stopped short of a high-school degree and who are not fully employed. Opportunity youth is the demographic term used to describe this group, and Northwest Education Access is a natural fit.
“This is the particular space in higher ed we’ve been for about a decade,” Viel says.
Northwest Education Access serves more than 1,000 students, and it has expanded beyond King County to include Pierce and more recently Snohomish counties. There are two main prongs of the program. College Prep starts with a one-on-one relationship with an education advocate who helps assess what the student needs to navigate around any barriers standing in the way of secondary education.
Once enrolled at a secondary school, students move to the College Success prong of the program, receiving the support necessary to complete the course of study. Along the way, gap scholarships are available for students who encounter unexpected financial hurdles.
Some of the students have become true academics, going on to earn a doctorate. Other students have studied a trade. Northwest Education Access has partnerships at most community and technical colleges in King County. The program seeks to meet students where they are and help them move toward their educational goals as opposed to steering them on a predetermined route.
The ArtsFund has more than 50 years of history here in Seattle, having distributed more than $100 million in grants to further arts and culture in the greater Puget Sound region. It also serves as an advocate and a hub of support for the community.
“Arts and culture are a tool for community health,” says Michael Greer, executive director of ArtsFund. “We can be used to create positive outcomes along with other positive social services programs. We are a method to creating better and healthier outcomes for people in our community.”
Art brings us together, inspiring both those who create it and those who consume it. Just look at Path with Art, which was founded in 2008. It started as a group of women sharing their experiences with the healing power of art at Mary’s Place, a shelter for women in Seattle. It has become an organization that will serve 1,000 people this year, largely through art classes targeted at the homeless community and others recovering from trauma.
It isn’t therapy. The instructors are artists, but an act of creative expression is necessary to make a work of art can have an impact on the creator that is nothing short of transformational.
“It is a palpable thing,” says Holly Jacobson, Path with Art’s CEO, “to see in real time people connecting to themselves and expressing themselves and belonging and developing a sense of community and purpose. They are very simple things, but they’re very profound, and they’re things that a lot of us take for granted every day.”
The majority of the participants have experienced homelessness. Some have gone through a mental-health crisis. Others have been victims of domestic violence. They have suffered trauma and the practice of art helps aid their recovery.
Earlier this year, one of the participants in the program talked about her experience. By the time she was 20, she had an apartment in Capitol Hill, was working as a massage therapist and studying to be a nurse at Seattle Central Community College. At 25, she began experiencing extreme anxiety, suffering from suicidal thoughts and enduring uncontrollable mood swings. She was hospitalized for a month, recovering from psychosis and dehydration. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
During the next 30 years, she was hospitalized 26 times. She lost her apartment and her business. She wound up living in a tent in an encampment and suffering from severe depression.
In her mid-50s, she realized that art was something that had eased the symptoms of depression. She found a brochure for Path with Art at a clinic where she received psychiatric treatment. In the seven years since she took her first class, she has found a sense of not just stability, but also empowerment. She has experienced joy. She has not been hospitalized once in those seven years.
It is an individual example of both the impact that Path with Art has as an organization and a demonstration of the transformative power of art, which is the message Greer and ArtsFund are trying to amplify.
“We really want people to be shifting their mindset,” he says, “around what is the value of arts and culture in their neighborhood. That’s what it is. It creates better outcomes for your neighbors.”
It’s something we must keep in mind especially when we consider the way the pandemic upended the financial structure of the entire sector. From 2019 to 2020, ArtsFund found that earned revenue dropped 42% for arts organizations. From 2020 to 2021, it dropped another 51%. The total volume of loss is in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
“That’s the backdrop for where organizations are in trying to recover,” Greer says. “It’s very important for us to continue to resource the sector that will allow them to not just recover, but to thrive and to reimagine themselves.”
ON THE WEB
To connect with any organization mentioned in this story, visit:
Snohomish, Skagit, Whatcom, Island and San Juan Counties
Hero House Northwest
Bellevue, Seattle, Everett
The Sophia Way
Shelters in Bellevue, Kirkland
Technology Access Foundation
Northwest Education Access
King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties
Greater Puget Sound area
Path with Art