Head of VARSA steps down as group rethinks relationship with VYFS

After a dispute with Vashon Youth & Family Services, the volunteer group working to reduce youth substance abuse on Vashon has announced it has a new organizational structure that will allow it better serve the island and  that the group’s former head has stepped down.

“It was an emotional period, and there were some difficulties ironing things out, but we did,” said Kathleen Johnson, executive director of VYFS. “I think everyone is very happy we can focus on the work again.”

Under its new structure, the Vashon Alliance to Reduce Substance Abuse (VARSA) will not work as closely with VYFS, may be eligible for more government funding and will more easily partner with other community organizations, members say.

Luke McQuillin, who many say had become the face of VARSA as its project coordinator, resigned in the process. McQuillin, who was a VYFS employee, declined to comment on his resignation.

“It was sad that he left. … Luke contributed a lot of things to VARSA,” said Diane Kjellberg, VARSA’s co-chair.

“I think that with that change comes opportunity,” she added.

VARSA is now finalizing a new memorandum of understanding with VYFS, making plans to rent an office space in town and preparing to advertise either one full-time or two part-time paid positions with the organization. Representatives of both VARSA and VYFS say they’re hoping to put the dispute behind them and focus once again on prevention programming and their work to change community attitudes around youth drinking and drug use.

“I would really like to get VARSA stable, to get past issues and get to the point where people say, ‘I like what they’re doing, and I want to get involved,’” Kjellberg said.

An ongoing dispute between some members of VARSA and VYFS began earlier this year and came to a head in May, when Johnson asked several VARSA coalition members to resign from their positions, with an invitation to reapply if they wished.

In Johnson’s letter to VARSA member Larry Kjellberg, which was attached to a reply email Kjellberg sent to

Johnson and copied to a reporter at The Beachcomber, Johnson gave a few reasons for making the move, including VARSA’s failure to report in a timely manner various information required by its government grants.

In Larry Kjellberg’s reply email, he questioned whether Johnson had the authority to ask that VARSA members resign and was highly critical of Johnson and her work at VYFS. In reply emails copied to The Beachcomber, two other coalition members expressed dismay at Johnson’s decision and said they would not resign.

Johnson, McQuillin and VARSA coalition members were tight-lipped about the dispute, declining to comment on it at the time. Jim Hauser, another VARSA member, said the group ultimately sought mediation, and VARSA later released a statement saying it was working with VYFS.

Those involved in the dispute still decline to give specific details about it, but say the argument stemmed from a need to better define the roles and responsibilities of VARSA and VYFS as the two groups planned multiple approaches to tackling Vashon’s high levels of youth substance abuse and decided how to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in government funding. They say the memorandum of understanding between the two groups had not been updated since 2009.

“It was clear as mud ... and that’s where the tension you saw was coming from,” said Meri-Michael Collins, a VARSA co-chair.

While VARSA volunteers emphasize that VARSA was never an official program of VYFS, its fiscal sponsor, the new structure gives VARSA even greater independence from Vashon’s social services organization.

“We decided long-term it’s the best thing for the community and the grant if we make it really clean, which doesn’t mean we’re not collaborating,” Collins said. “We’ll always collaborate.”

While Johnson and McQuillin, both VYFS employees, served as VARSA’s program director and project coordinator, both of those roles will now be filled by one or two people employed solely by VARSA. Collins said VARSA chose to offer a position to McQuillin under the new structure, but he issued his resignation.

Collins said McQuillin, who was hired by VYFS in 2010, took a lot of knowledge and experience with him. She said she requested a formal exit interview with McQuillin and VYFS to try to learn more about his time with VYFS and why he may have resigned.

“We’re going to miss a lot of his skills,” she said.

Under VARSA’s new model, its new director — or perhaps two people who split outreach and administration duties — will respond directly to the VARSA coalition board, a group of volunteers representing a variety of community groups and organizations.

VYFS will still be closely involved in implementing programs funded by a $150,000-per-year state grant that goes toward prevention activities, such as early childhood intervention and school curriculum. However, it will serve solely as a fiscal sponsor for a 10-year federal Drug Free Communities grant that, if renewed next year, has the potential to provide $1.25 million in funding for prevention activities over the decade.

Both Johnson and VYFS members say that distancing itself from VYFS should open up more funding opportunities for VARSA, as many government agencies now prefer to fund coalitions such as VARSA over nonprofit agencies.

“Having a coalition on the island gives us some credibility,” Johnson said. “Having them be more independent and not as an offshoot of the agency would be stronger for the island.”

What’s more, VARSA volunteers say it will be easier for the group to partner with other Vashon organizations such as The DoVE Project or the food bank on prevention-related projects and to attain funding for such projects through its Drug Free Communities grant.

“We can give money to anyone in the community that has a request that fits our grant,” Collins said.

Both Collins and Kjellberg say that working through the often-confusing specifics of how VARSA will move forward has been extremely time consuming for those involved, and the two women have been acting as the temporary program director and project coordinator for the group.

“It basically has become a part-time job for me,” said Collins, who also works at Chautauqua Elementary School.

The two say VARSA is looking forward to once again focusing on addressing youth alcohol and drug use on Vashon. The latest youth survey results show that Vashon high schoolers continue to drink alcohol and use marijuana at rates higher than their peers in the rest of the state.

Middle school use, however, is down, something that both VARSA and VYFS officials say could be a sign that their programs and efforts to change community norms are beginning to make a difference. However, continued progress, they say, depends on gaining broader community support and getting more volunteers involved with VARSA, something they hope will happen under its new structure.

“It has to be owned by the community,” Kjellberg said.

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