With the afternoon Whidbey Island sun shining on her face, Heni Barnes stood up in the bright living room and shared a story about her mother threatening to disown her after finding out she was gay, and the period of housing instability that followed.
We watched. We listened. We empathized, but didn’t know how to respond.
Hearing Heni’s story often comes as a surprise for many—it is easy to wonder how this kind, gentle, and compassionate soul could have flourished in such turmoil. Her story represents one of many that the weekend tourists who flock to Whidbey Island every summer simply do not hear.
Last year alone, sixty-seven of the students enrolled in Whidbey schools were experiencing homelessness—representing nearly 2% of the student population.
I’d never heard about this side of Whidbey before the other weekend, when I attended a picnic for the Whidbey Island Giving Circle, a group that raises and distributes funds on the island to support LGBTQ equality.
Established as a fund of Pride Foundation, this group has given nearly $64,000 in grants and $33,500 in scholarships since its founding in 2007.
As I sat at the picnic and listened to the conversations of those around me, though, I realized how much more this group represents. From advocating for culturally competent healthcare for LGBTQ seniors to funding every island Gay Straight Alliance (GSA), the Whidbey Island Giving Circle has become a true agent of change.
In a place where divisive issues—military interventions, severe income disparities, political ideologies—are displayed on every street corner, they’ve come together as a unified, hopeful community that forms effective partnerships and coalitions to tackle the issues that most deeply impact people in the area.
And it’s working.
People continue to be drawn to this group and to the Whidbey Island community in general. Other than their spectacular (and frequent) potlucks, Whidbey Island is known for one thing—its enduring community.
The Whidbey Island Giving Circle has made it their mission to take care of their own: to make sure that every student has a roof over their heads; to give doctors the necessary training to treat the ever-growing LGBTQ aging population; to ensure that every single person on the island can live safely, openly, and genuinely.
Near the end of Heni’s story, her smile began to grow as she discussed her future plans as a Pride Foundation scholar at the University of Alaska. At that moment, an enormous dragonfly flew into the room where we were all gathered. As it hovered above all of our heads, the room went silent.
Again, we watched. We listened. We took in the beauty of that moment.
As someone helped usher the dragonfly outside, its beauty, grace, and strength became, for me, a metaphor for Heni’s story, and for the story of the Whidbey Island community—a reminder that no matter your grace or strength, sometimes you just need a helping hand in order to truly be free.
Katelen Kellogg is Pride Foundation’s Interim Community Giving Manager. Email Katelen.