Max Higbee Center helps disabled youth and adults recreate

F or more than three decades, the Max Higbee Center has been committed to providing recreational services to developmentally disabled youth and adults. Western Washington University professor Max Higbee, recognizing a recreation gap for developmentally disabled people in the community, started an informal program that in 1984 became a nonprofit organization soon renamed for its founder.

Since then, the programs and support from the community have continued to grow, said executive director Kait Whiteside. The mission of the center is to provide an environment for members to recreate just like anyone else would. “The center is a place where members can just be themselves, have fun, and be social,” Whiteside said.

Like a gym, members pay a small fee for classes, which the organization will waive for those with financial constraints, and have access to recreationally focused activities Monday through Saturday. “Programs are choice-based to stay true to recreation. Everyone decides how they recreate in their own lives,” Whiteside said.

Monday through Friday, the center offers several daytime programs. The Skill Share Program is every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and is targeted to building new skills for members. Volunteers, staff, and members themselves spend the class period teaching their own skills to members. “The Skill Share Program is about lifelong education, which is important for everyone,” Whiteside said. Each weekday afternoon features the Community Access Program. Members get to engage with the community through trips to the library, farmers market, the co-op, and just about anywhere else of interest. One of the newest programs is the Recreation Mentor Program. Participating members are paired with a mentor, a Higbee staff member, for an individualized experience. “This program is great because it services the less social members with really specific support. It allows us to reach and serve more people,” Whiteside said.

While staff are present in every class, Whiteside said the organization strongly encourages volunteers to lend a helping hand. The staff prefer volunteers to commit to at least two or three months of coming into classes on a regular basis. Volunteers can simply drop into classes whenever it works with their schedule, Whiteside said. “Volunteers are great because they add another new face,” Whiteside said.

The center gets its funding from government grants, donations, Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services and membership fees. But an important (and popular) fundraiser is the center’s annual April Brews Day. More than half of the organization’s budget comes from the event, Whiteside said. April Brews Day began 16 years ago with only Boundary Bay brewery, but it has mushroomed since. When the event is held April 29th in the Bellingham Depot Market Square, it will feature about 65 breweries, Whiteside said. If that much beer isn’t enough of a draw, the event also hosts local musicians and food vendors.

Looking beyond the brews and the valuable service the center provides, Whiteside said she hopes that one day the community will no longer need an organization like the Max Higbee Center. Recreation for everyone should be an inherent part of the community, not something an organization is responsible for, Whiteside said. “I think recreation, friendship, and community are such a major part of life. They shouldn’t be privileges. They should be rights.”

1210 Bay St. #120, Bellingham 360.733.1828 |

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"The center is a place where members can just be themselves, have fun, and be social. "