Bellingham Cares – A Resource for Families in the School District
By Angie Fitton
The Bellingham Public School System website is more than just for sending emails, checking your child’s grades and attendance and reading the school events calendar. It’s also about the program Bellingham Cares. If you were to Google Bellingham Cares, there are videos to watch explaining what it is, and where you can find more detailed information about it and how to navigate the system.
Initiated in Bellingham in 2021 by District social worker and therapist Katherine Cunningham, Bellingham Cares is an umbrella term referring to caring for the community. It’s about understanding the needs of the community including students, families and staff.
Bellingham is a trauma-informed district and works with other community-based agenciesto be sure there is diversity, equity and inclusion. The resources on the website are available in English, Spanish, Arabic and Portuguese.
Cunningham oversees five schools in the Bellingham district, and though she’s got an office, she’s rarely in it. She goes from one school to the other, traveling daily, in order to find out the needs of the community and discovering how she can best help.
One of the reasons Bellingham Cares is able to exist is because the district has received the Department of Education Social/Emotional grant. It is primarily a referral system to connecting with community-based services and removing barriers for getting help and care. Cunningham is the voice of Mental Health in Bellingham and is continuously thinking of ways to make Bellingham an inclusive community.
“Everyone in the district is doing such great work,” Cunningham says of her colleagues. “Bellingham Cares is how we make sure we do things better.” Her role is to supplement staff and families, alongside those like the nursing staff, which she emphatically states is an amazing department.
When a member of the staff tells Katherine they need something, she turns their needs into a reality. She is aware of what services are available for the staff, and families of the students.
“The education systems are asked to do a lot, but the state is moving in the direction of enhancing school-based health programs, whether physical, emotional or mental health,” according to Cunningham.
Facilitating a connection for utilizing the services available to those in the district can be a challenge, but Katherine exudes great enthusiasm when referring to what she does day in and day out. Though she may not have face time with the students directly on a regular basis, she is the one the staff go to once a student comes to them.
“The kids have a relationship with the staff, and once they reach the end of their knowledge of our resources, the staff comes to me. That’s when I become connected with the families.”
One of the largest concerns of Bellingham Cares are mental health crises. Cunningham manages mental health crises and assists the staff and their families in order to help the students. She also helps parents fill out paperwork to get in with the Department of Mental Health, because when the parents are doing well, the children do better.
“Children work best with structure. When their parents are doing better with keeping rules and routines, our kids start to struggle less. Therefore, it is imperative that the families know I am here for them.” Sometimes the parents need to know that they are not alone, no matter how much they may feel like they are.
Cunningham also helps the families of the community to understand trauma and how it directly affects them and their children. “Let me help you,” she says, referring to the families of Bellingham. She can also help with frightening subjects such as food or housing insecurities. Her favorite part of what she does is working with staff members who genuinely care about the kids and their families. “I love my job!” She doesn’t want you to have to need her, but she wants you to know that she is there when you do.
“We are here to support the wellbeing and sense of belonging for everyone in the district. We want them to know they have access to all the supports available.” Cunningham wants this beautiful community to feel connected and supported and see there is tangible support available to them.
“My field is about having awkward conversations about awful things that have happened, and I encourage those conversations to ensure the community members in need get the support necessary to facilitate a win.”
To find out more about Bellingham Cares, you can visit the school district website’s main page. Go to ‘links and info’ and find out about workshops and how to contact staff about your concerns. The resources page is regularly updated. Cunningham is also willing to share her cell number, (339) 222-2455. This number is a way to reach her during business hours, but is not a replacement for a Crisis Hotline. Should you find yourself or your child in crisis, there are professionals available at (833) 773-2445. 988 is also another option for getting immediate help in a crisis.