Helpline leader Dan Willms moves on

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WALLA WALLA — After five years of “extremely rewarding” times at the helm of Helpline, Dan Willms is returning home to his family and the family business. Today was his last day at the desk of executive director.

Willms leaves Walla Walla for Northern Idaho to be near children and grandchildren, and resume work with his brothers in the construction contracting business, he said. “Which I did for 14 years before I came here.”

He built here, as well, shoring up the nonprofit agency that strives to meet the emergency needs of the area’s neediest population.

During Willms’ tenure, the 51 year-old ushered technology into the Helpline office with an office-wide computer system and introduced a food bank punch card. Before that was in place, families had to come in to Helpline every time they needed to access free groceries from a local food pantry, he explained. “We instituted a monthly basis, so people weren’t having to come in all the time.”

In 2009 Willms led the agency in establishing the STEP shelter for homeless women. People questioned the need and the long-term sustainability at the time, he said today. “And both have been proven. STEP has done a fantastic job at transitioning women to the community, and that will continue.”

As well, the executive director calmed the concerns of clients and others when Helpline was invited to move into Walla Walla County’s Community Social Services Center, the revamped building on Kelly Place last year. The biggest challenge was getting people transported to the address off of Dalles Military Road and some distance from the downtown location where Helpline was housed for many years.

If it hadn’t been for Valley Transit’s work to establish a bus line to meet the need, it would not have happened, Willms said. However, the move has brought forth a plethora of positives, including a closer working relationship with the county’s Department of Human Services. “And it’s been good for clients, many of whom use multiple social services.”

Always, the joy of the work outweighed any of the negative challenges, he said. “It’s been a great blessing to see Helpline grow and become stronger as a nonprofit organization in our Valley.”

There is more to do, Willms noted. “I think one of the big things Walla Walla doesn’t know is the extent of the affordable housing situation in Walla Walla . In our rental assistance program for eviction prevention, the need has grown in the last 18 months, and about 150 percent in the last 12.”

The issue is systemic, he feels. “You have a county with a higher poverty and at the same time you have higher rental rates than neighboring communities. I think that surprises people.”

Willms plans to become involved with social service agencies in his new community, he said. “Idaho has very few, so there is great need. I’m hoping to be part of finding solutions.”

Helpline board members accepted Willms’ resignation with reluctance, said Sharon Longmire, board president.

“The gift Dan brought was being a visionary, he sees things that need to be done and is very determined to find a way to get it done.”

The director will not be easy to duplicate, she added. “He is one of the finest men I think I know as a human being. He’s got compassion, he’s got brains and he’s got common sense, and we’ve needed to depend on that.”

Helpline will operate under interim director Richard Pankl, who agreed to step up while the organization begins an immediate hunt for local candidates, Longmire said. “We’re very appreciative of Richard stepping up and guiding us.”

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