By: Matt Morton

Watching a colleague leave the office for the last time is always difficult. On a small staff, I can say it’s even harder, but it also brings an opportunity to continue fostering growth within our team.

This year, we are saying farewell to two of our amazing team members. Our Chief Financial Officer, Pam Cabanatuan, plans to retire in July, while our Program Officer, Maka Gibson, has already departed on her journey back home to Hawaii. Without a doubt, we are losing two genuinely caring people who brought incredible talents to our team.

Pam has been with the Community Foundation since 2010, navigating complicated financial markets, processing complex gifts and distributing millions in annual grants. Through it all, Pam has kept her eye on the details, making sweeping improvements to our accounting processes and guiding us toward new opportunities. Her love of learning made her a great leader, and I know the team will miss her keen insights and her perfectly timed quips.

Maka has also done so much to transform the Community Foundation in her five years here. She has built authentic, lasting relationships with nonprofit partners and community leaders in Cowlitz County, providing guidance and support through the grantmaking process and beyond. She has also advanced our Commitment to Equity internally and within the community as a member of the Southwest Washington Equity Coalition.

Every team member brings unique contributions, so any departure brings a real sense of loss. It starts with the relationship itself and extends to their talents and experiences, and the positive dynamics and culture we share. But, as these positions open, so do new opportunities. For us, the greatest opportunity is in fostering growth within.

Experience Feeds Growth

Most of our team has been with the foundation for five years or more, building skills and deepening their understanding of the work we do daily. Recognizing this, we formalized a process for promoting the talent that already exists in our office. Where possible, this can make saying farewell a little less fraught and ensure that the organization’s mission keeps moving forward. In both cases here, we are happy to announce that two familiar faces will be taking on new roles.

Rachon Hanson will take on the title of Chief Financial Officer in early July. Rachon has been with the Community Foundation since 2019, working side-by-side with Pam to enhance our function as a steward of charitable assets. Rachon has already helped reshape our thinking around investment practices and improved data reporting across the organization. Moving forward she is excited to continue bringing our budgets, investments and financial decisions in closer alignment with our new vision.

On the program team, Ursula Arlauskas will begin working closely with Esra Khalil as our new Program Officer. Ursula started with the Community Foundation as a Development Associate, a position Chrissy Brown will take on moving forward. Over the last six years, Ursula has grown a deep passion for our equity work and the nonprofits we partner with. Now, she is excited to work in collaboration with them to advance community-driven solutions and continue improving our Strategic Grantmaking Program.

We invited several partners and community members in Cowlitz County to celebrate this transition, and Maka Gibson shared some touching words to mark the occasion. They held personal significance to me as a Coast Salish person, because she spoke about her experience planting camas with the Cowlitz Indian Tribe on a rainy December morning.

Her words also relate to how we chose to grow our own team through this season of change. For both reasons, I wanted to share an excerpt with you in hopes that it sheds light on the essential work our staff and organization advance every day.

Words of Growth and Gratitude

As we drove up, it was pouring, and rain was coming down sideways. We turned into a parking lot and no one else seemed to be around. Then, a van with a Cowlitz Tribe logo pulled up, and we looked at each other. In that moment, our eyes said, “Well, this is it. Let’s go!” That day, I ran into several of our community partners. It was so good to see them, connect and catch up. I walked away from the camas planting remembering why we do this work and what really matters.

At the planting, Cowlitz Tribal Members taught us that the Cowlitz word for camas is qáwm. I learned that camas is the grandmother of Cowlitz and other Native people in the region, and it is one of the most important traditional foods in the Coast Salish region. Growing camas is an incredible example of humans engaging in reciprocity with the land. It requires maintaining prairies with cultural burns and aerating the soil by harvesting—by taking care of camas prairies, they in turn, take care of us.

I was thinking about the camas plant itself when I was reflecting on what I wanted to say today.

The roots and the bulbs—or corms—of the camas, which are the parts that are harvested and eaten, remind me of the foundational relationships that we’ve built together in this region. When I first started working in Cowlitz County five years ago, the people in this room welcomed me with open arms. We met in your offices or your homes, or at Hearth Coffee Shop or here at Roland Wines, or we took long walks along Lake Sacajawea. In those spaces and moments, you shared with me what your work looked like, the challenges you faced and the many opportunities that lie ahead. I did a lot of cold calling and emailing back then, and I asked many of you for introductions to this leader or that organization. I’m so grateful that you were willing to make time to respond or connect me with someone, or to just chat about what was happening.

Camas bulbs contain high amounts of inulin, which is a starchy substance and a type of prebiotic and can improve digestive health, help control diabetes, and aid in weight loss. Indigenous people used camas as a sweetener before the introduction of honey, sugar and molasses. The connections and relationships that I’ve made in Cowlitz are one of the sweetest parts of my role.

From the roots and bulb of the camas grows the stems, which eventually support the flowers. The stems made me think of the continued and sustained partnerships that we have developed together. Many of you have heard me say that foundations and philanthropy as a sector are on a continuous journey that is shifting our work from a transactional model to one that is transformational.

For me, that meant continuing to show up and be present in the community. When I met with folks, I did way more listening than I did talking. I learned quickly that sometimes nonprofits or community leaders need funding to support their work, but more often than not, they need a funding partner who is willing to cheer them on when things get uncomfortable or tough, and they need a friend who is willing to continue to show up.

The stems of the plant are important because they move nutrients from the soil through the roots up to the bud, enabling the plant to flower. Our partnerships are similar in how they critically support our communities, especially our BIPOC communities and other populations who have been historically under-resourced in Cowlitz County.

After the stem comes the beautiful blue-purple and sometimes white camas flowers, and these to me represent the rich, vibrant communities that make Cowlitz what it is. Going back five years ago, I recall hearing the sentiment, “Well, there really aren’t that many people of color that live in Cowlitz.” Yet so many of you in this room refused to believe that was true. When we look at the demographics of Wallace Elementary and the greater South Kelso neighborhood or the Highlands neighborhood in Longview, we know that’s not true.

The past three years of the COVID-19 pandemic have been hard for communities in Cowlitz, but especially for our nonprofits and the communities you all serve. I think so many of us are still feeling the impacts of the pandemic, and I know that our BIPOC families and students and others who are closest to the harm will continue to deeply feel how these systems have and continue to fail them. It’s up to us to ensure that we center their stories, perspectives and voices.

After the camas flowers and goes to seed, you can sprinkle the seeds back into open soil. I think about how the work we’re doing together is like the life cycle of the camas plant. It will never end. We will and we must always continue to find ways to uplift our communities that are most impacted by systems of oppression.

At the end of the camas planting, Cowlitz elders reminded us that when we eat the food that sustained our ancestors, like camas, it not only feeds our bodies but also our spirits. I am walking away from the work we’ve created and done together, knowing that it has nourished my body and my spirit.

Along the lines of this beautiful metaphor, I am grateful to both Pam and Maka for their continued stewardship of our communities, this organization and our culture. Words don’t fully capture their impact, but I know many of our partners and donors have seen it firsthand. The Community Foundation has been and will always be a reflection of its people, and we are all privileged to have had these talented women leading the way over these many years.

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About The Author

Matt Morton

Matt Morton is the President of the Community Foundation for Southwest Washington. With more than two decades of leadership in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, Morton leads the organization with a community-centered approach and a deep commitment to improving outcomes so that communities can prosper on their own terms.