Imagine waking up one morning and finding everything gone. Credit score ruined, home and car repossessed and a business of eight years destroyed. Imagine having to start over. Wendelin Dunlap attributes her ability to start over to her optimistic attitude after having her identity stolen by her friend and bookkeeper of her business. Dunlap awoke in a nightmare where everything she built was lost: her home, her car and even her business. Slowly Dunlap worked herself away from the life where she had lost it all. She is working toward a master's degree in environmental education at the Huxley College of the Environment, where she was hired as the director of the Learning Education Action Discovery (LEAD) organization. Dunlap’s journey started on April 1, 2009 when her friend, who Dunlap has requested stay anonymous, quit her job as Dunlap’s bookkeeper. The friend told Dunlap there was a terrible family matter she couldn’t speak about and she had to leave town that day, Dunlap said. Once she left, Dunlap started to uncover the extreme degree of damage her friend had done while working for her. “I was pretty much in shock for a month,” she said. Dunlap believes her friend committed numerous crimes while working for her, she said. According to Dunlap, she took money from all five of her employee’s payroll, used a company credit card in Dunlap’s name and pocketed about $28,000 a year from IRS payroll taxes, Dunlap said. When Dunlap brought the evidence to the Anacortes Police Department, they did nothing, she said. They didn’t bring her friend in for questioning, Dunlap said. According to the police report, Dunlap was instructed to take her computer to a specialist to try to retrieve the items her employee deleted and to come back if she had solid evidence of theft. The police were unmotivated to pursue the case because they had recently worked on a similar case where the person under investigation of identity theft ended was rehired by the employer who originally asked the police to pursue the case, Dunlap said. It was because of Dunlap’s poor credit that she moved to Bellingham. She was able to rent from owners since they were used to renting to university students with little or no credit, Dunlap said. When she first moved to Bellingham, Dunlap was unable to make a living wage. Frustrated and in need to support herself, she went to the WorkSource Whatcom Career Center downtown for some career resources. The organization is an employment resource center that helps people with a variety of tools such as finding a job, building a resume and connecting them with others in similar fields. WorkSource turned out to be a huge booster for her to get her life back on track and helped her take the next step toward her new future, Dunlap said. Dunlap said she realized that everyone has struggles and challenges they have to overcome throughout their lives. “I’m not the only one who has lost everything,” she said. Following the advice of the staff at WorkSource, Dunlap applied for the FAFSA and starting looking into what it would take get her master’s degree at Western, the only school she applied to. It was the “Fire and Ice” exhibit at the Whatcom Museum of History and Art that really sold her on the idea of returning to school, Dunlap said. The exhibit featured a panel where Gene Myers spoke about his class, conservation psychology. “He had really great things to say and I was just blown away,” Dunlap said. Dunlap decided to head back to school to get her master’s in environmental education. Her focus is on curriculum designed for environmental education to help elementary students with autism, she said. Looking back, Dunlap said she feels that she is serving a greater purpose with her life now than before the identity theft. Additionally, Dunlap is kept busy as the director of LEAD. LEAD is a service-learning oriented program on campus that organizes work parties with the goal of preserving and restoring the Whatcom County environment. Needing to limit her student debt, Dunlap came into the position out of necessity when she was looking to be either a TA or RA while going to school, Dunlap said. Steve Hollenhorst, Dean of Huxley College, hired Dunlap a year ago for the position of director of LEAD, a position that is one of the only parts of the organization that is paid due to a small budget, Hollenhorst said. “We don’t have many resources for the program,” Hollenhorst said. This is no issue for Dunlap, Hollenhorst said. Dunlap excels at getting things done even with the lack of resources the program has at its disposal. Dunlap said it was her love of the outdoors and bringing people out to them that sparked her interest in LEAD. And the program has been as wonderful as she could have hoped it’d be, she said. Luke Gillespie, an assistant coordinator for LEAD, said that Dunlap is qualified to be director because of the enthusiasm she brings to every project. “She has a very positive outlook on where this organization could go,” Gillespie said. Dunlap said one of her goals as director is to teach students self-efficacy, the idea that what they do can make a difference even if the problem, like climate change, seems huge. Even if an issue seems overwhelmingly huge, if you focus on one work party at a time you can make a difference, Dunlap said. Dunlap approaches challenges much like she approached those from the identity theft, she said. “I can make it through anything. I just have to relax, maybe have a good cry and look at the opportunities that are out there,” Dunlap said.
One of Dunlap’s great characteristics as director of the program is her willingness to listen to everyone’s ideas, Gillespie said. “I feel like it’s really important, especially when you are trying to start something new, to want to encompass everyone and not just a certain niche of people,” Gillespie said. And that is exactly what Dunlap said she wants to see for the future of LEAD. As the director Dunlap hopes to involve students from all kinds of academic fields and backgrounds into LEAD, she said. In the past, the program has mostly reached out to students in Huxley, but Dunlap’s goal is to expand the reach of LEAD to include more students from more academic backgrounds, she said. Dunlap said that in order to achieve this goal she plans to develop the club aspect of the organization to give students more opportunities to get involved rather than just participating in a work party to fulfill a requirement for a class. “I really want to have more student-directed activities,” Dunlap said. Since starting as the director, Gillespie said that Dunlap has streamlined the program and how they work behind the scenes. Specifically, Dunlap put together and organized a Google Drive for LEAD that stores their statistics and data since the organization began ten years ago, Gillespie said. Now, instead of trying to work on one computer, staff are able to work from anywhere they want, Gillespie added. Additionally, since Dunlap starting work with LEAD the program has seen an increase in student participation as well as more service opportunities for students, Hollenhorst said. Hollenhorst said better marketing campaigns are a reason for these positive changes. Getting the word out to more students means more attendance to projects, he said. “When all is said and done, it was a blessing,” Dunlap said, referring to the challenges she faced with identity theft. It led her to where she is today, she said. To those who are going through a similar struggle, Dunlap advised that finding levity in any situation will ultimately make it easier to deal with. “I could laugh or I could cry and I’d still be in the same situation,” she said.
“I can make it through anything. I just have to relax, maybe have a good cry and look at the opportunities that are out there."
— Wendelin Dunlap, LEAD Director