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By Tris Anderson

The Max Higbee Center, which provides recreational programs for developmentally disabled teenagers and adults in Whatcom County, is expanding in order to provide greater services.

The center’s mission is to create opportunities for friendship, recreation and community by offering recreation programs throughout the year, said executive director of the Max Higbee Center Kait Whiteside.

The center, which has over 400 members, is currently located on Bay Street next to The Upfront Theatre. The new, larger building will be located on the 1400 block of North State Street. Whiteside said she’s unsure when the center will open, but the plan is to open it as soon as possible.

Whiteside said the new location is ideal because of its central location, increasing visibility within the community and accessibility for Whatcom County residents because of its location on the bus line.

The center was created by educators and the families of those with developmental disabilities. In 1984, the center became a non-profit and was named after Max Higbee, a former Western professor, who helped found the center, according to the center’s website.

The center board began looking for a new location in 2018. 2018 was the first time in its 35-year history that the center needed to create a waitlist for new members. The waitlist currently has 40 people on it, and the new building will be able to hold an additional 50 people, Whiteside said.

Funding for the new center came from Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham, which provided a $280,000 grant. Private foundations including the Foster Foundation, the Chuckanut Health Foundation and the First Federal Community Foundation have contributed to the expansion.

The Chuckanut Health Foundation, which invests in community health throughout Whatcom County, gave $25,000 for the center’s expansion.

“The Chuckanut Health Foundation really values the work the Max Higbee Center does,” said Executive Director Heather Flaherty. “They’re key to making our community a healthy place.”

The center also had a GoFundMe page with a goal of $60,000, which was reached within a month. The funding goal was then raised to $70,000. The GoFundMe will provide the center with design components needed to complete the full vision of the center and allow the center to hire new staff.

“You know, I was surprised, but I also wasn't surprised,” Whiteside said about the GoFundMe. “It was amazing to see how quickly that we hit that goal. We also live in such an amazing community that I think really believes in inclusivity and welcoming all of its community members. I knew that people would come together and help us make this happen.”

Susanna Rodriguez has used the center for four years. Rodriguez’s favorite programs offered by the center are the cooking programs that take place in the mornings. Matthew Best, who’s attended the center for three years, also said his favorite programs are the cooking programs, where he enjoys cooking Pad Thai.

The cooking programs are part of the skills share program which teaches participants life, art and science skills every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Rodriguez said she’s excited for the expansion and that she expects the new programs to be fun.

No date has been set for the opening of the new location. Whiteside said she plans to invite the public to the new location once it opens, in order to maintain an ongoing relationship between the public and the center. The GoFundMe is currently at $69,225 of its $70,000 goal and is still accepting donations. Donations are also accepted on the Max Higbee Center website.

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