“In a small community, it’s really easy to get involved.”
A relative newcomer to the Olympic Peninsula, Merissa Koller Williams learned this aphorism years ago in Kodiak, Alaska, getting involved in a string of nonprofits and community roles before moving to Port Angeles in June of 2018.
“The kind of people who are attracted to working with nonprofits are the kinds of people I’m (into),” she says. “They’re focused on the greater good and making their communities better. I find them inspiring.”
Williams was recently named the new executive director of the Sequim Education Foundation, a community nonprofit founded in 2001 that boosts educators through annual teacher grants and provides student scholarships, along with community events such as its annual Science Café series.
She moves into the role after Jodi Olson was hired as Highly Capable Program Coordinator for the Sequim School District and stepped down from the SEF position.
SEF broad president John Bridge said Williams was a good choice for the role because of her nonprofit experience.
“She seems very comfortable in a group,” Bridge said. “She’s got great communication skills, she understands Facebook and the website … and she’s community-oriented.”
Williams said she and her husband, a Port Angeles native, moved from Alaska about a year ago to help renovate and sell his parents’ house, and in the end decided to stay on the peninsula.
A coach with the Washington Elite volleyball club, Williams spent last year coaching, raising her son Bering and helping launch the Port Angeles Nature School before taking her new role with SEF.
“It’s pretty much the perfect gig — they needed a director to fundraise and help keep their financials in line,” Williams said. “(My role is) more about visibility and expanding their resources.”
The new executive director said her role is primarily looking to boost the nonprofit’s income to help fund its annual teacher grants.
SEF started awarding teacher grants in 2001-2002, giving $2,425.50 to local educators. The program grew to more than $11,000 in 2011-2012 and jumped to more than $24,300 in 2015-2016. In 2017-2018, SEF grants totaled a little more than $22,000. A year later they totaled $31,575, and the 2019-2020 grants are at $28,267.
In 18 years, the foundation has awarded 167 teacher grants for a total of $176,769.39.
“Our major goal is to just expand our financial pool,” Williams said.
“We’re ready to think a little bigger, throw bigger fundraisers. We’ve talked about planned giving (too). Our big goals are to find new donors and be able to provide more and larger grants to the teachers.”
Originally from Minnesota, Williams moved to Alaska to work at a salmon hatchery at age 23. It wasn’t long before she had a role as a development assistant at local public radio station, where over four or five years she worked her way into a event and volunteer coordinator position. In addition she took on roles as volleyball coach, an art council board member and served as board president for a community co-op grocery store.
“Teamwork is my jam,” she said.
So Williams’ role with SEF — about a quarter-time position with an active board — seemed a natural fit.
“It’s really right amount of time, the people were great … I sat down with the board (and) felt like I fit right in,” Williams said. “They’ve done so well; this board is so active.”
Sequim Education Foundation’s mission is “to be a catalyst for vibrant growth of each student in the Sequim community,” Olson said.
“We strive to achieve our mission by awarding teacher grants, academic scholarships, sponsoring programs and assisting in creating opportunities for those students; our vision is to inspire and support a lifelong love of learning.”
In addition to collaborating with teachers, administrators, other school staff and school board members, SEF looks to create “meaningful, inspiring” educational opportunities for students, Olson noted.
Projects of note this year include funding to bring a crisis training by Jesus Villahermosa for Sequim School District employees, equipment and materials for a new music production lab and course at Sequim High School, Pacific Science Center’s Science on Wheels program for all kindergarten and first-grade students at Helen Haller Elementary, and instruments and supplies for the Sequim Middle School band program.
Coming up, the Sequim Education Foundation kicks off its 2019-2020 Science Café series on Oct. 8, and is taking part in Giving Tuesday, the international day of charitable giving set this year for Dec. 3.
“When you give to foundation you are purely giving — there’s no membership, no benefit, except (that) you know you are investing in the next generation, who will preserve the great work you’re doing in your community,” Williams said.
“That’s the hope.”