By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
After 35 years with Southwest Youth and Family Services, executive director Steve Daschle is saying goodbye.
This Wednesday (May 24th) will be his last day on the job.
Even if you’ve never met him, his work likely has touched your life in some way – if not his work with SWYFS, then certainly his many other community endeavors.
First – about SWYFS, if you’re not familiar with it. “We’re sort of a quiet organization, but effective,” Daschle summarizes. It’s a regional human-services nonprofit headquartered in a blink-and-you-miss it beige building at 4555 Delridge Way SW. That’s adjacent to Delridge Playfield, which Daschle’s office overlooks. But SWYFS wasn’t there when he started in 1988 – it was at 35th/Henderson, and then moved to Delridge, in a former Parks building, in 1996 (the building was vacated when Delridge Community Center’s current building opened in 1994).
Under his leadership, SWYFS has grown dramatically, now serving about 2,500 people a year. Though he says “there’s a lot of work undone,” he believes “now’s a good time” to leave … “I’ve been thinking about it for a while.” For one thing, there’s the ticking clock of age – he turned 65 this past February.
The organization’s size and budget – about 70 percent publicly funded – have grown as its region of focus has expanded. Even though many people in West Seattle need the sort of support SWYFS offers, “our client base can’t afford to live in our neighborhoods any more. Immigrants, refugees tend to live further south; we’ve done a good job following them with our services.” Besides the Delridge HQ, SWYFS has satellite spaces in South King County apartment complexes and plans to be part of the new HUB project in White Center, which will include affordable housing and space for community services and organizations that provide them. (The Delridge HQ will remain, too.)
When Daschle began – just out of graduate school – SWYFS had a budget of $229,000 and “10 to 15 staffers.” (Now it’s $7.6 million and ~90.) Programs included education, counseling, and youth employment. “We have an education program working to support kids who were kicked out or who dropped out of school. We don’t have a youth employment program like we did then – now we do some employment-readiness work.” A major addition over the years has been that it’s also a licensed mental-health agency. And family-resource work is also a focus, “supporting mostly immigrants and refugees to learn how to connect to services.” Imagine arriving here from not only another country, but perhaps from a refugee camp, and having to work through “so many processes, a labyrinth of challenges … we have people [to help them] who have been through it themselves.”
SWYFS also has what Daschle describes as “one of my favorite programs … a fabulous early-learning program, ParentChild+, home visiting for two- to four-year-olds and their parents – it’s incredibly effective.” Visiting twice a month over the course of two years, the workers start by coaching parents on effective ways to read to and play with their little ones. “Kids who complete the process graduate at or above [the level of their] peers, regardless of socioeconomic status.”
And there’s New Futures, “scattered in five housing complexes in Burien, Seatac, White Center – much of the same work we do here [in West Seattle], only done at apartment complexes. Parents are often working two jobs so there’s no one at home.” Kids get help in a variety pf things, even college applications. “It’s like a second living room.”
The newest SWYFS program is Becoming a Man, at seven middle- and high-school campuses in Highline Public Schools. “Each school gets a counselor who works with about 50 kids,” providing cognitive behavioral therapy and allowing students “to share their deepest concerns in a safe space.” The program also supports “fundamental values like integrity, respecting women, accountability, showing up … it’s a curriculum developed by a Chicago organization – we’re the first licensee.” The program overcame an early challenge: “We started the groups two months before COVID hit – it’s a hands-on program so it was a challenge to convert to online – but we managed to hang in and keep going, and it really took off.”
As did Daschle’s career at SWYFS, where he landed after studying for a masters degree in public administration at Harvard. He had done public-service work before, including volunteering with the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone in the early ’80s. He found out about the SWYFS job from friend Tom Weeks (later a Seattle City Councilmember); SWYFS, Daschle recalls, was struggling at the time after losing its founder. He had never even visited Seattle before interviewing for the job but ‘fell in love with it,” and headed west.
“The board made me sign an agreement to stick around for two years,” he laughs, snapping his fingers to indicate how fast the 35 ensuing years have passed. He’s proud of so much but especially an “incredible staff,” working for SWYFS despite the fact that it can afford “30 percent less pay than their colleagues in public and private sectors (make) … we still continue to get these great people.”
He’s worked on the big picture as chair of the Seattle Human Services Coalition. “When I first started working (here), the city had made a commitment of $500,000 to human services. Now, it’s hundreds of millions … it’s in part because of advocacy that the city has consistently supported human services … if not for those investments, (things) would be so much worse. I am incredibly proud of the human-services community speaking with one voice and hope that continues.” Daschle says it’s vital to realize “how important human services are to a functioning community,” no different than physical infrastructure like “streets and sewers.” But funding remains a challenge, including funding that covers the true cost of providing a service: “Many of our contracts have limits on how much administration you can charge – one contract limits it to four percent, but it costs 18 percent to provide the services. In many cases we supplement contracts with other sources of funding.”
Now, that’ll be someone else’s fight. As he wraps up 35 years at SWYFS, we ask if there was a time he almost left. “Every 10 years or so I’d think of maybe trying something else,” he admits, and after moving from West Seattle to Redmond, he pursued an Eastside job but didn’t get it. Yet the SWYFS job kept its hold. “This is who I am, and my identity.” The search for a successor will likely take months, but he said an interim leader would be in place before his departure.
What’s next for him? “I’ve committed to my wife that I’m going to step back from everything.” Not just by leaving this job, but also other organizations with which he’s been involved, including the Rotary Club of West Seattle. “I’m going to take six months to just do nothing and think about what my next plan will be.”
SWYFS, he’s confident, will thrive under new leadership. “There’s always going to be a need for human services, as long as humans are around. That speaks to the future of this organization” and its “phenomenal staff … There’ll always be a need for behavioral health, education, helping new arrivals understand the community, and community-building.”
WEDNESDAY P.S.: County Executive Dow Constantine declared today Steve Daschle Day in King County – here’s the proclamation.