Friends of Friends welcomes new director

Friends of Friends Medical Support Fund, the South Whidbey volunteer safety net, has helped South Enders struggling to keep up with rising healthcare cost for 10 years.

Now, for the first time since it was founded, the group is facing a major change in its leadership.

Founder Lynn Willeford will step down as director of Friends of Friends on July 1. For the past decade, Willeford had coordinated the efforts of the group from her home and taken phone calls from community members. She has worked out deals with healthcare providers and raised money to pay for medical expanses for people in need.

The Friends of Friends board of directors has hired Claudia Cox to take over as service coordinator director.

Willeford had told the board in January of her intention to retire as volunteer service director. She asked them to pay a small stipend to lure an exceptional replacement to take over the part-time job.

“Claudia’s medical knowledge, organizational talent, people skills, and passion for our mission make her the perfect fit for Friends of Friends,” said board president Dana Kelly.

Cox has a background in office management and has worked in the medical field.

Starting next week, Cox will be answering messages left at the new Friends of Friends message line. People can call 221-4535 and Cox will call back as soon as possible to answer questions and help. She will check the answering service several times a day on weekdays.

Although people will not get an immediate pick-up any longer, they will now be able to call around the clock.

“Our hope is that we have planned this transition well enough that those who use our services won’t even notice a hitch,” Kelly said.

Willeford won’t leave the non-profit organization completely.

“This is my baby,” she said. However, the change gives her a chance to step back and look at what’s ahead.

She will focus on other areas and projects within the Friends of Friends structure, she said. Willeford would like to see the network expand on the island.

Friends for Friends has paid more than $400,000 in medical expenses on behalf of people living anywhere between Clinton and Greenbank. Now, a small daughter organization, Small Miracles, is operating out of Coupeville.

Since Willeford started the program, the organization has grown from raising $7,500 in the first year to raising $66,000 last year. The organization has helped thousands of people. Last year, Friends Of Friends assisted 227 individuals and, so far, 150 people this year.

“When I started this it was just a temporary thing until the government got healthcare in line,” Willeford. “And now, here we are.”

Cox is looking forward to her new work.

“My goal is – I hope I can fill the boots of Lynn Willeford,” Cox said.

She said there is a great need for an organization like Friends of Friends on South Whidbey.

“That’s why it has grown, not only in size but in recognition,” she said.

Unexpected medical expanses can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, many on South Whidbey are without medical insurance. Island County has set a goal of having healthcare coverage for all by 2010.

However, the county’s key indicator report shows that the county is not meeting the goal. Only 94 percent of Island County adults under the age of 65 have health insurance, and that number is positively impacted by the military community on North Whidbey.

Families without military ties or those on a limited income often go without. However, people who can’t afford healthcare or are overwhelmed by medical bills can turn to Friends of Friends for assistance.

Friends of Friends has built a reputation in the past 10 years and the organization is well respected by agencies, Willeford said. The group also has built a loyal base of donors and is deeply woven into the community.

Services are completely confidential, she added.

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