Bill Sterling and the Center for Self Reliance
by Kathryn Fentress
Bill Sterling, 63, was born in Bellingham and has lived here his whole life. He attended Sehome High School and Fairhaven College at Western Washington University. He has three adult sons and five grandchildren. He has been working in the environmental movement all of his adult life. The Center for Self Reliance is located on Chuckanut Drive at the old rose garden site just north of Fairhaven Park.
Kathryn Fentress: How did your interest in environmental issues begin?
Bill Sterling: I’ve been at it a long time. When I was growing up, my mom, Doris, was a single mother with 4 kids. We lived up on High Street and I became a campus kid from sixth grade on. I was a bit feral and various professors took me under their wings and guided me along.
Any particular teachers come to mind?
Nicholas Bussard, a musician, mathematician and conductor, had me playing music and conducting. I play tuba, string bass and electric bass in several bands including two jazz bands, and I have done pickup work and studio work. Phil Ager also mentored me from middle school through my years at Fairhaven College. Bill Baker and other coaches pulled me into sports. These men took me off the streets and had me busy playing music and playing sports.
What were your early projects?
Several of us started the Whatcom Solar Association which was housed next to the Western Washington University’s recycling program. We set up a four major recycling centers across the state in the late 1970s. Out of this work came a Master Energy Conserver Course. Initially, five neighborhoods signed up for curbside recycling and that has developed into a citywide program.
The recycling project certainly turned out to beabig success.What came next?
So then I got into the land trust movement. I had already built my first house up in the Samish neighborhood. I was out of my energy job and had a family to support so I built a house in the woods on a piece of land that came to be called the River Farm Land Trust out near Van Zandt. We lived off the grid for the next 23 years. I built solar panels, outhouses, and developed a gravity fed water system.
I was also very active with the Evergreen Land Trust with 30 years on the board and helped with developing the by-laws and mission statement. From there I went on to help develop the Kulshan Land Trust. One of our projects involved partnering with HUD. The government was looking for more creative ways to support low-income housing. Paul Schiffler, Greg Winter, and I designed a way for low-income people to buy a house with assistance from HUD. In this arrangement, federal funding provided the down payment and a 100-year lease on the home for the buyers. The land remained in trust. There are 127 or so households in Whatcom County that are being served by this program.
Are you still living at River Farm?
I left River Farm about seven years ago when I divorced. Prior to that I had already been working on the Kulshan Trust and my focus had started shifting back towards town. When I moved to town, I found a place out on Agate Bay on Lake Whatcom and restored a house there and fixed up two other ones on the property. I am living in community again. Soon I’ll be looking for contracting jobs here on Southside.
How did the Center for Self Reliance come about?
All the early volunteer efforts led me to this project. We applied for and received a grant from the Parks and Recreation Department to develop this piece of land. We have refurbished a 100-year-old caretaker’s house with new walls, floors and roof all with donations of materials and labor. In our proposal we identified a resource center to help with food systems and energy systems. We plan to have a full array of ongoing courses and we hope to rent the place and grounds to the community for weddings and classes. We are planning a grand opening in the next few months. We had the Whatcom Skills Share event here this past summer and are looking into this being the permanent location for this project.
We have been offering classes outdoors for the past four years. We have 120-plus teachers who have expressed an interest in teaching here, everything from fiber arts to raising chickens. We have also discussed developing a Speaker’s Bureau and we are open to being an umbrella for other nonprofits with similar mission who do not have their 501(3)(c) education designation. I am still tithing 10 percent although it sometimes is as much as 30 percent with various projects.
What goes on here at the Center for Self Reliance?
We have a house committee, a garden committee and a grounds committee. We volunteer and recruit other volunteers. Explorations High School has been gardening here. The past two years we have given away 100 pounds of food a week. We have had a bike cargo group from campus who bike the food to the house-bound, low-income people. We are growing more every season and will be starting the winter gardening soon. With the use of the house, we will soon be able to offer classes on food prep, canning, and cooking. We have had preschoolers who come on the bus and tour our garden and have a picnic. We are hoping March will see our kickoff! We ask ourselves how can we best serve the community. We are very interested in providing the place for community groups with similar visions to meet and communicate.
What do you need in the way of assistance?
Money, of course, is helpful. We need volunteers to organize and supervise the library and to be here when groups want to meet or offer classes. We need books on gardening, energy systems, resiliency, food growing and preparation, and permaculture. We have named the programs that focus on teaching The Chuckanut Center.
How do you keep yourself motivated in this work?
That is a good question since there are a lot of grim things in the world to bring us down. Early on I learned about the notion of the cup being either half empty or half full and it is up to us to choose. I have always been a half full cup person. I also have music with friends and family is important. Christmas was wonderful with lots of grandchildren, grand nephews and nieces. We have 40 some folks now in the extended family.
What do you most want our readers to know?
I want to remind folks that tithing brings abundance, and that this Chuckanut Center belongs to the community. Come for a visit and bring any idea you would like to see happen; come join in. Everyone is welcome!
Kathryn: Thank you, Bill, for your dedication all these years to our community. The web-site is www.chuckanutcenter. org.
How to Help: The Center for Self Reliance is on a mission to renovate and revitalize the historic Caretaker’s House and Gardens at the former Fairhaven Rose Garden, while offering a space for community members to practice and teach gardening and food preservation skills. For more information, send an email to: caretakershouse@ gmail.com
Kathryn Fentress and her husband moved to Bellingham 20 years ago for the water, trees, fresh air and mountains. She is a psychologist in private practice and believes that spirit is in everything. Living in harmony with nature reflects a reverence for life. She delights in finding and meeting those people whose stories so inspire all of us.