Opportunity Council

Bellingham, Washington

 “Our intent was to create something that would be adopted nationally and leverage the low-income weatherization program.”

–Dave Finet, Executive Director, Opportunity Council

In recent years, the concept of leveraging the Weatherization Assistance Program to improve the health and safety of homes has gained a lot of momentum. (See this magazine’s ongoing series on page 38.) But if it weren’t for the efforts of Bellingham, Washington’s Opportunity Council, Weatherization Plus Health might not exist.

“Our intent was to create something that would be adopted nationally and leverage the low-income weatherization program,” said executive director Dave Finet, whose organization has been refining the concept for nearly 20 years.

It all began in 1993, when Opportunity Council secured an environmental justice grant to work with Native American tribes, a group suffering from serious indoor quality issues in their homes. After this initial success, Finet met with other groups concerned with indoor air quality, including the city of Bellingham, the local air pollution authority, and Western Washington University, as well as asthma and allergy clinics.

As indoor air concerns became a bigger and bigger part of Opportunity Council’s weatherization program throughout the 1990s, Finet wanted to bring the idea to a larger audience. “Around 2000, we started shopping around the idea that the weatherization program was a great vehicle to go out and improve the indoor environments of people’s homes.”

Finet applied for funding from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but both declined. Then in 2002, he applied to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Healthy Home Initiative with the concept of leveraging low-income weatherization.

HUD funded an initial project that allowed Opportunity Council to work with 20 families with kids who had asthma. All the kids in the program attended day care, so the project included those buildings as well because, Finet said, “if we could clean up the [home] environment, we wouldn’t really be able to tell the impact unless we worked on the child care provider’s home, too, or at least assured that that environment was healthy as well.”

This all-inclusive approach continues to define Opportunity Council’s work. “We are different in that there is a lot of integration [among] different programs,” said Finet. “We try to be pretty holistic in how we make referrals within the agency.” Children in Head Start with asthma or disabilities, for example, are prioritized for Weatherization Plus Health. The goal, Finet said, is to create a pathway for families to connect to services no matter where they enter the agency, adding, “We probably do more of that than other agencies do.”

At any given time, about 30 families are enrolled in Opportunity Council’s Weatherization Plus Health program. In addition to a home energy audit, the agency spends time with family members, getting to know which behaviors may contribute to energy issues or indoor air quality problems. The agency then follows up with an itemized action plan tailored for each family. Further services could include anything from providing pillow and mattress covers to undertaking full-blown weatherization of the home, in some cases even installing a ventilation system to deal with moisture problems.

The work is paying off. People  in the program report their indoor air quality is better, and there are fewer asthma incidents, fewer instances of kids going to emergency rooms, and fewer kids using inhalers. These results are important to Finet, who says the standard approach to asthma is medication. Although his agency doesn’t enter into the health care world, he said, “our business is evaluating the indoor environment . . . how to reduce asthma triggers and how to make cleaner, healthier indoor environments.”

He also credits the success of the program to partner agencies in the community that understand the goals of Weatherization Plus Health. Because of that understanding, they are able to make referrals to Opportunity Council, and “that’s really brought the whole community together,” he said. “That’s an important role of a community action agency.”

For several years now, the U.S. Department of Energy has used the name “Weatherization Plus Health” for its national effort to coordinate resources for energy, health, and safety in low-income homes. I asked Finet if he’s been collecting trademark fees for the term he coined. He laughed and said no. “But a lot of people ask me that.”