If South Whidbey residents have a favorite community nonprofit, there’s a good chance it was started by one of a select few women.
They are Lynn Willeford, Peggy Taylor and Diana Lindsay, South Whidbey’s own “Startup Queens.”
“The one thing we share in common is we’re the kind of people that just want to dive into things, whatever that may be,” Taylor said. “Also, we’re not afraid to ask for help. You don’t have to have connections to start something.”
Willeford, Taylor and Lindsay are the founders of more than a dozen enduring community organizations, including Hearts & Hammers, Healing Circles and Young Women Empowered. The three are close friends who regularly bounce ideas off each other while searching for ways to help their community. This sort of brainstorming is so typical, they’ve come to call themselves the “Startup Queens.” In the middle of an interview with The Record, they even managed to do a bit of brainstorming on ideas for new nonprofits, from an organization that brings North and South Whidbey together, to one that would encourage diversity on the island.
Although the group can be credited with the founding of an impressive number of organizations that have made waves in the community, they’ll be quick to credit other starter-uppers, such as former Langley City Councilwoman Rene Neff and Giraffe Heroes Project founder Ann Medlock. According to Taylor and Lindsay, however, Willeford’s role on the island has been crucial.
“This is a community of doers where everyone seems to have done so much, but the real startup queen is Lynn,” Taylor said.
“I’d say Lynn established that culture here by starting South Whidbey Free University in 1973,” Lindsay said. “First, it was that, then Hearts & Hammers came. It was inspiring to see that you can make a real difference if you do it right.”
Willeford, who this week was presented with a Linda Lee Martens Health Hero Award from Island County Community Health Advisory Board, has been a community mover-and-shaker since she relocated to the isle in 1972. Although Whidbey wasn’t where her family roots were established, she says the message of “love thy neighbor” always resonated with her, so she consistently sought ways to help others. That attitude led to the founding or co-founding of a dizzying number of recognizable organizations: Hearts & Hammers, Friends of Friends Medical Support Fund, Whidbey Island Local Lending and the Women of Whidbey stories at Whidbey Island Center for the Arts, which she co-founded with a number of people, including as Lindsay and Neff. Her most recent project was South Whidbey at Home, an organization geared toward helping people age in place.
In addition to South Whidbey Free University, she also founded the now-defunct Citizens for Sensible Development. Basically, Willeford’s fingerprints are all over organizations on the South End.
So what’s her secret? Keeping things simple, treating people like, well, people.
“I purposefully limit it to a sustainable model, where you don’t have to raise a ton of money or employ full-time staff, because that’s what usually kills ideas,” Willeford said. “All it takes is keeping things small, coming up with an idea that people really resonate with and being clear that the people you serve are never customers.”
According to Lindsay, one doesn’t necessarily have to be well-connected to create a startup, as long as they “just do it” and ask for help along the way. It helped her kickstart Healing Circles in Langley, a community support center for those going through serious illnesses or trauma. Lindsay also started a dance company for students and her own company, Lindsay Communications, in addition to her involvement with Women of Whidbey.
For Taylor, who started Power of Hope Camp, Partners for Youth Empowerment, Young Women Empowerment and Open Circle Singers — South Whidbey’s Community Choir — a crucial aspect to kickstarting an enduring organization is simply having fun. Without that approach, she says putting in the volunteer hours can be a struggle. It’s helped her build relationships with volunteers and it improves chances of them returning, and can even make a nonprofit more productive. To her, if something is dragging along or isn’t working, it’s a sign that perhaps it isn’t fun enough.
“Peggy will often say, ‘This isn’t fun, let’s stop thinking about it and just do this,’” Lindsay said. “It makes things unpredictable, which always freaks out volunteers, but you need to believe in the idea that there are multiple alternative routes to reach your destination.”
“If you’re too earnest, nobody wants to play with you,” Willeford said.
Despite the Startup Queens’ numerous organizations enduring to this day, they harbor hopes passing the volunteer baton to a younger generation of philanthropists. Lindsay is the only one who plans to stay in the forefront, as Healing Circles has given her “a new life,” while Willeford and Taylor plan to stay involved in “some smaller way.”
Lindsay says there are countless reasons to put in the hours they do: a sense of belonging, meaning, interaction and the personal health benefits that come as a result of those feelings to name a few.
The queens are confident people will step into their shoes, despite the South End’s aging demographic. They just have to take a gander and, as Taylor says, “just do it.”
There certainly is a lot of opportunity to do so — throw a rock in any direction on South Whidbey and you’re bound to hit a nonprofit.
“Volunteerism is needed everywhere, but I also think it’s flourishing, even if I worry if someone will take the baton,” Willeford said. “People just need to not be afraid to ask for help. I wasn’t afraid. The older adults in this community really want to support the younger people.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Lynn Willeford founded the Readiness to Learn Foundation. She did not.