Sleepy-eyed friends hugged and sipped coffee while sitting around tables in Boundary Bay Brewery’s beer garden. People in line for the buffet of bacon, sausage and eggs began to sway as the band on stage covered a Vance Joy song. At 10:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, the Max Higbee Center’s Brew’s Day Brunch was in full swing.
Max Higbee Center is a nonprofit organization that serves developmentally disabled teens and adults in Whatcom County. It was founded by, and later named for, former Western professor Max Higbee.
Kait Whiteside has been executive director at the Max Higbee Center for a little over a year. At the brunch, she piled her plate high with fresh strawberries and hash browns with ketchup before sitting down to chat with friends and volunteers about last night’s April Brew’s Day.
This year’s April Brew’s Day was Saturday, April 25. This annual event hosts 50 brewers and around 4,000 guests to sample different beers. The event also hosts live music and raffles. The proceeds from the event account for 50 percent of the Max Higbee Center’s annual budget, according to Whiteside.
“It’s also the event that saved us 14 years ago,” she said.
In 2001, the Max Higbee Center was in financial trouble and just days from having to close its doors when a board member had the idea to team up with Boundary Bay Brewery to put on a beer festival as a fundraiser. The money raised was enough to keep Max Higbee in operation, and they’ve been doing it ever since.
The event was expected to bring in $124,000 for the organization, Whiteside said.
Attendee and volunteer Ashley Slentz thinks the event reached that goal. Slentz, a Western senior, spent the first few hours of April Brew’s Day working the admission line.] At 8:30 p.m., just two hours after opening the event to general admission, Slentz and fellow volunteers had to start denying people entry when the event reached maximum capacity, an estimated 4,000 people.
After the doors were shut, Slentz had a chance to go in and enjoy the festival.
“My favorite beer was the Ace pineapple cider. It was so good, so refreshing,” Slentz said.
The party went on late into the night. The crowd at the Market Depot began to thin around 10 p.m.
“It was pretty overwhelming at some times, but in a very good way,” Slentz said.
Whiteside said the intensity and volume of April Brew’s Day inspired the staff to create a second fundraiser, the Brew’s Day Brunch, which is hosted the Sunday morning following April Brew’s Day at Boundary Bay Brewery. This year it was April 26. The brunch is a family-friendly event and is attended by many of Max Higbee Center’s members. Admission is $10 and raffle tickets and merchandise can be purchased at the event. All proceeds go to support the Max Higbee Center and its members.
Shae Lukacovic, is one such member who brought friends and family to the brunch on Sunday. She has been a member at the Max Higbee Center for the last ten years. Lukacovic sees her membership as a great opportunity to spend time with friends.She was also Max Higbee’s Member of the Month in April, and enjoys all things art.
Lukacovic and other members are the heart and the personality of the Max Higbee Center, according to its staff and volunteers. Whiteside has more than five years of experience working with developmentally disabled children and adults.
Her favorite part of her job at the Max Higbee Center is working with the members. “They put a smile on my face every single day,” she said. “They give me as much as I give them, so it’s a really beautiful relationship.”
One of Max Higbee’s newest volunteers sees his time there as more than just a way to give back to the community, he sees it was a career path. Jared Grafenauer, 22, studies therapeutic recreation at Western. He said he plans to pursue a career focused on serving the disabled, and volunteering at the Max Higbee Center is a way to get there. After graduating, Grafenauer wants to work in a hospital with trauma patients or patients recently diagnosed with disabilities.
“I really want to help them get back to doing what they love,” he said.
Grafenauer said recreational therapy is a career path that relates to anyone. Recreational therapists can do a number of things after earning their certification, such as rehabilitating wounded warriors, working with the developmentally or mentally disabled or aiding those who are incarcerated, Grafenauer said.
Grafenauer started volunteering at the Max Higbee Center a few weeks ago after hearing about it from friends at Western. He said his favorite memory from volunteering was karaoke night at Max Higbee on April 17. Grafenauer said that there were a lot of great performances. He laughed as he recalled his own performance, a duet with one of the members.
“We did ‘This Land is My Land’,” he said. “Everybody was swaying, it was fun.” He said there were about 30 people at karaoke night. “It was fun to just let loose, and there’s no judgment,” he said.
For Grafenauer, providing opportunities for the disabled is a reward in itself.
“Everyone deserves to have the experiences that [members] have at Max Higbee,” he said. “Everyone deserves to be part of a community where you don’t feel judged, and you can truly be yourself and express yourself.”
Staff and volunteers at Max Higbee run regular programs and events for members. Members can take cooking classes, exercise at the YMCA or just hang out through the weekday and weekend drop-in center.
“I think it’s really liberating to go into a place and feel like you belong,” said Grafenauer. “It doesn’t matter if you have a disability or not, I think everyone deserves that.”
The Max Higbee Center, located at 1210 Bay St, offers quality recreational opportunities within the community, including Bellingham Baconfest, April Brew’s Day, Brew’s Day Brunch, a zombie-themed 5K run and others.