In 1976, Jackie Henderson and her husband moved to Whidbey Island “on a whim.”
“We were going to stay a few years,” Jackie Henderson said.
This month, the first and only department head of Island County Human Services celebrated her 40th anniversary working at the county. She did so with reluctance, however, as Henderson has a tendency to steer the conversation and attention away from herself.
“We are better off because of her leadership,” Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said.
Price Johnson praised Henderson’s ability to facilitate partnerships to meet needs, such as with school districts to create the school-based mental health counselor programs. Henderson also oversaw the implementation of an opioid outreach team, that includes a human services employee working with law enforcement to help those fighting addiction.
“She always keeps the person she’s trying to serve at the center of her decisions,” said Commissioner Jill Johnson.
Henderson has many memories of individuals she’s worked to help. One that stands out is a woman who was from Island County originally but spent around 30 years at a mental institution because she suffered from Prader-Willi syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes constant hunger and developmental issues.
When the woman left the institution, Henderson said she worked with a number of different resources to place her back into the community. Together, the agencies were able to find the woman appropriate housing and employment.
“She ended up being incredibly happy,” Henderson said. “It was the community that surrounded her and gave her a happy life … She was an amazing woman.”
Even if her office can’t help directly, Henderson said her day is improved if she can steer someone in the right direction.
“If you can make just one person or one family’s life easier, it’s a good day,” she said.
Helping people has been at heart of Henderson’s entire career. Out of college, she worked at a children’s hospital. She moved and found a job working with adults with developmental disabilities. She thought she’d stay with it until she found something else, but she discovered she “absolutely loved it” and remained in the field for years.
Her first job on Whidbey Island was with an agency that provided services to adults with developmental disabilities. Around 1978, she worked part time with the county doing similar work.
As the county programming expanded, Henderson took on more hours and more responsibilities. Eventually she became the coordinator for the developmental disability program. As state funding came in for more social services programs, Henderson kept taking on more and more.
“As I’ve added things, I’ve really had to learn about those systems, so I feel like I’ve done about five or more jobs,” she said.
At the time, there wasn’t a separate human services department and all of the programs fell under public health. In 2005, the state Legislature passed a law that allowed counties to create a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax to fund new mental health, chemical dependency or therapeutic court services.
Henderson was one of the leaders on a task force that spent about a year creating a proposal to pass the tax and developing priorities on how the money should be spent. The day her group gave its recommendation to the board of commissioners, Henderson said the hearing room was packed. People flowed into the hallway and even into the stairway.
“That was one of the most amazing days,” she recalled.
One of the people present at the meeting was Price Johnson before she became a county commissioner. After Henderson’s presentation and a number of comments in support, the board unanimously approved the sales tax.
“The whole room just erupted with applause and cheers,” said Price Johnson.
Mike Shelton, who was a county commissioner from 1993 until 2012, said the board chose Henderson because of her passion for human services programs.
“She’s done an outstanding job of doing everything in her power to make sure these people receive the services they require,” he said. “… 40 years is a long time to commit yourself to public service, and I think Jackie is a good example of a very committed public servant who has done a lot of good in Island County.”
Those priorities presented to commissioners in 2006 are still relevant in the department today: school-based services, mental health outreach to at-risk community members and early childhood programming. Funding for these programs has increased over the years and Henderson and her team at human services have tried to expand each of them to the best of the department’s financial ability.
“We’re still doing what we said we were going to do,” she said.
Additionally, the recently-created Housing Support Center has helped hundreds of individuals and families find a place to live. The developmental disabilities school-to-work program and adult employment programs are both some of the most successful in the state, Price Johnson said. Henderson has also overseen an increase in mental health work in the jail and the creation of an embedded social worker with law enforcement.
These aren’t accomplishments Henderson would take credit for herself.
“I just hire good people,” she said.
Despite the department’s success, the position comes with a number of frustrations for Henderson. Much of it revolves around what she sees as a disconnect that can happen between what policies are created in Olympia and what the reality is on the ground. She said what gets funded doesn’t always align with what’s needed in Island County, and all state money comes with strings attached.
“Local communities, we know what we need, and we know how to solve some of the problems,” she said. “But our hands get tied by silliness sometimes.”
She’s worked under several county commissioners, and although she said she’s mostly been supported by them, she admits sometimes they can butt heads. Over the years, she said she’s learned how to get around that.
Johnson is the current chairwoman of the board of commissioners, and she admits to having had some friction with Henderson.
“She’s very passionate about what she does, so she’s very convinced when she’s right,” said Johnson. “She doesn’t care what my title is, she doesn’t back down when she think she’s right.”
Johnson said this caught her off guard at first, but has become a trait she highly respects in Henderson. Price Johnson said she’s sometimes had a different perspective than Henderson, but they’re always able to find a way forward through their shared values.
Frustration with state lawmakers, tension with local officials and the emotional toll of working with the community’s most vulnerable people have made the job difficult to do for so long.
“It drives me crazy some days, and I think ‘why in the heck am I still doing this?’” she said. “And then something new happens, and I get excited again.”
She’s also learned to compartmentalize the harder aspects of her job, because she knows she can’t help every person.
“I can’t take everything home or I wouldn’t sleep,” she said. “You do have to find ways to kind of let it go. And then you come back and you start again.”
While she still has the energy, it’s important to her to continue working for her community. Henderson said she often remembers John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural address in which he said “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
She took those words to heart, although she narrows down country to community. She doesn’t have any concrete plans for retirement, because there’s always something else that keeps her going.
“You know by my age now that you’re not going to fix the world,” she said. “But you can fix little pieces of it.”