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The South Whidbey Community Center is an inclusive space for the South Whidbey community to gather, learn, and create. It’s a place where people come together to make positive change, and that can be clearly seen in their recent heat pump project. 

“The campus itself is really honored and respected by the community at large,” Gail LaVassar, the Center’s director says. “It’s right as you enter into the town of Langley, and it’s a hub for the South Whidbey community. We rent out different spaces on the campus and provide a variety of opportunities for the community – recreation, social services, veterans resources, art, and educational programs. It used to be a school building, and the district didn’t want to sell the campus. They wanted it to be a place where students and families could still gather, spend time together, and enrich their educational experience.”

Photo by John LaVassar

Gail LaVassar, photo by Em McLoughlin

The South Whidbey Community Center focuses on inclusivity and having their programming reflect the community they serve. The South Whidbey community is extremely caring of one another –  neighbors helping neighbors. Gail has seen this herself throughout the years of her work in the community and in social services. “I also work for our Readiness to Learn Program, and see how once the community is aware of a need, they always rise to meet it. This community is compassionate and active, artistic and playful. Being an island, we all know each other! And a large number of community members care deeply about the earth, and about projects that will help take care of the earth and the humans that call it home.” 

That’s where the heat pump project comes in. Gail explains, “Since our campus is so central in the community, we wanted it to be a place that gives people hope and models energy efficiency and technological integration. Early on, I learned about Sustainable Connections and thought it would be great to have an assessment and figure out what we could do to lower our emissions and improve our campus.” 

“We felt lucky to be invited to perform an energy audit at South Whidbey Community Center,” said Emily Larson Kubiak, manager of Sustainable Connection’s Energy and Green Building Program. “They are a wonderful community resource and we were excited to help them find ways to implement their values around environmental stewardship by making improvements to the building.” 

South Whidbey Community Center participated in the Community Energy Challenge, a unique program that helps homes and businesses in Whatcom, Skagit, San Juan, and Island Counties reduce energy use in their buildings. After an energy audit, participants receive a tailored report showing all of their energy-saving opportunities, and the Community Energy Challenge helps them access financial incentives to make it affordable to make upgrades. 

Heat pump installation in progress, photo by ML Harris

Photo by John LaVassar

That report came out in 2018, and a lot of the recommendations were beyond the Center’s budget. Luckily, a Puget Sound Energy grant became available. Once secured, the funds helped the Center remove one boiler and replace it with 25 heat pumps. “It was a great way to start,” Gail recalls. “Not only are we improving the experience of the people in our center – not too hot, not too cold – we’re also reducing our carbon footprint. Since we have the attention of the community, we’re able to promote and publicize why these kinds of changes are important. We’re now involved with another group that’s applying for a grant that subsidizes families to install heat pumps. It’s an affirmation that people in the community are paying attention. We want to use our campus to be a catalyst to inspire change.”

And this project has done just that. In true South Whidbey spirit, the project was collaborative and action-oriented. Island Ductless was a part of the project from the beginning, involved in the grant-making process as well as the implementation. “They did it in good faith,” Gail says. “There was no guarantee, except that they knew our team was going to work hard to raise the money. David Gray at Island Ductless believed in us, and we raised $160,000 in the middle of the pandemic, in addition to the grant from PSE. We couldn’t have done it without the support of the Readiness to Learn nonprofit, and three community members in particular who were core to our fundraising team: Clyde Monma, Peggy Juve, and Marlee Jenkins. Our campus partners ran fundraisers. It was truly a collective effort.”

Photo by ML Harris

Main entrance and office manger Em McLouglin, photo by ML Harris

That collective effort creates a stronger, more involved community – a cycle of growth and reciprocity that South Whidbey prioritizes. “Community is about creating spaces and places where people are welcome and included, not just to physically be there but also have their ideas heard and put into action. This center is working to bring forth the visions and goals of the community and have them contribute to make those actualize. Our community lives and works together, honoring and respecting each other. Our role as the community center is to respond to the strengths and needs of South Whidbey.”

And the heat pumps are just the beginning of that. The project is one of many that the South Whidbey Community Center has implemented – and will continue to implement – to make South Whidbey a more inclusive, hopeful, and resilient community.

Learn more about the Energy and Green Building program here.

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