Leaders gather to discuss impacts of economy on vulnerable Islanders

Several civic leaders plan to hold a public forum to discuss how budget cuts and the economic downturn are affecting the most vulnerable Islanders and whether the nonprofit community and concerned citizens can work together to address a range of needs.

The event — to be held Friday, Aug. 7 — will pull together the executive directors of four nonprofits and two lawmakers in what organizers are calling a community conversation about the Island’s socioeconomic needs, the first of its kind, according to those involved.

They’ll address budget cuts at both the county and state level, the needs of senior citizens and low-income people on Vashon and ways those involved in social services could collaborate to advance a shared set of concerns, organizers said.

“We’re all in our separate camps so often and dealing with our own individual problems,” said Susan Tuller, who heads Vashon Community Care Center and is one of the organizers. “In talking to other directors, it makes a lot of sense for us to have this conversation together.”

“Vashon is a unique place in King County, in that we are very isolated, and all the other services in the county don’t really reach us,” said Sam Collins, the executive director at Vashon Youth & Family Services (VYFS).

As a result, he said, budget cuts that cause a program to close — as has happened at VYFS this year — can mean a service goes totally unfilled on the Island.

“I don’t want an entitlement,” he added. “But ... we need to make sure Vashon gets its share so that its citizens get a fair shake.”

The idea of a public forum was generated by state Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island), who has been working with the community care center on some of its fundraising needs in the wake of state budget cuts that have had a huge impact on the nursing home. She and others at the care center were sitting around a table discussing the issues, she recalled, when she suggested, “Let’s see if we can get community engagement.”

The goal, she said, is to raise awareness in the community and get various nonprofits working collaboratively as needs and issues arise.

“I see this as a very caring community if we know what the need is,” she said. “This will be a step toward engaging that.”

The four organizations that will be represented are the community care center, the Vashon Maury Community Food Bank, Vashon HouseHold and VYFS. Nelson and state Sen. Joe McDermott (D-West Seattle) plan to attend. Rep. Eileen Cody (D-West Seattle) couldn’t be reached for comment.

McDermott said he’s impressed by the effort, which he thinks will be helpful to him in Olympia, when he’s advocating for his constituents.

“I think it’s critical to have a conversation with the nonprofits on the Island ... to make sure we all understand the situation we’re each facing,” he said. “I hope to have a richer understanding of the services provided and the needs being met.”

McDermott added that he’s not participated in a gathering of this sort before. “This is actually very new. We’ve certainly done town halls and updates after the legislative session, but this type of conversation is really the first that I know of.”

The nonprofit leaders who plan to attend say they hope this could be the beginning of an era of cooperation among social service agencies, something that may be necessary in what Collins called “a new reality” of budget cuts and economic difficulties.

Chris Szala, the head of Vashon HouseHold, agreed.

“Social services as we know it probably won’t be that way in the future,” he said. “The economic changes that we’re seeing are more foundational.”

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