In the community

Longtime director of community nonprofit sets her sights on retirement

ONTARIO – Barb Higinbotham likes to stay behind the scenes.

The director of Community in Action is just fine with orchestrating the array of programs and grants that power the local nonprofit.

Yet make no mistake, Higinbotham loves her job.

That’s why as she prepares to retire in the spring, the longtime leader knows her departure will be bittersweet. She said she will yearn for the often high-tempo work environment but, most of all, she said she will miss the people.

“My staff is awesome,” said Higinbotham.

Higinbotham, though, will depart with a long list of accomplishments in her wake. Most of those triumphs occurred through countless hours of work, activism and dedication that most are unaware of.

Higinbotham helped spearhead a bold plan to create more housing in Ontario and was a key player in the effort to establish the tiny home project that furnishes temporary housing for the homeless.

She is also one of the key members of the Malheur Count United Housing Collaborative, an 11-agency coalition geared to tackle an array of local quality of life issues including affordable housing along with physical, emotional and mental health challenges. She is also on the board of the Four Rivers Healthy Community, an organization dedicated to the overall strength and health of communities in the western Treasure Valley.

In her community work, Higinbotham aimed to stay out of the limelight. Her work wasn’t about accolades.

“There is so much need out there, so much need in our community. Most people don’t see it but we see it every day,” said Higinbotham.

Higinbotham began work on creating Community in Action in 2008 after Dan Joyce, Malheur County judge, approached her about filling a service gap for the area’s most vulnerable.

Community in Action opened in 2009 with limited staff and funding but with some big goals to serve low- and moderate-income people.

Over time, the organization expanded – it offers services in both Malheur and Harney counties – and now consists of four main programs designed to help people with energy and weatherization assistance, housing, support for the homeless and community-based services.

The organization also provides funding for local entities such as the Boys & Girls Club of Western Treasure Valley in Ontario.

Community in Action is funded almost entirely by state and federal grants.

“We have about 55 grants open at a time,” said Higinbotham.

As the director of Community in Action, Higinbotham said she is “the one to make sure all the finances are flowing through the agency.”

“I make sure all the staff has what they need to get their job done. The buck stops with me as far as making sure we are meeting our grant requirements and we follow state and federal rules,” said Higinbotham.

Higinbotham works for a nine-person board of local residents and also acts to create partnerships with other area agencies.

“And I look for additional funding,” said Higinbotham.

Higinbotham said another important goal for Community in Action is to be a “resource for the community.”

She said she is most proud of “where we’ve come with this organization.”

“Just seeing the organization grow to a million and a half dollars invested in the community to over $10 million we are doing now, it’s been a pretty amazing ride,” said Higinbotham.

Community in Action, she said, employs about 24 people.

Higinbotham, 58, was born and raised in Ontario but becoming the director of a nonprofit wasn’t what she wanted to do when she was young.

“I wanted to be an archaeologist. I wanted to dig in ruins, old pyramids,” she said.

She said she managed her first nonprofit when she was 20 then worked for the state of Idaho before she began Community in Action.

Higinbotham said she can’t imagine doing anything else.

“The thing I love the most is when I come into work in the morning and I have all of this stuff planned out I need to accomplish during the day. Almost every day something messes that up. So, it’s fun. I can bounce from one thing to the next,” said Higinbotham.

Higinbotham said she really doesn’t have a set work schedule.

“I am kind of one of those people who works around the clock. Quite often I work on weekends,” said Higinbotham.

Higinbotham said her decision to retire in February revolved around a feeling it “was just time.”

“That sounds cliché, but, honestly, I think it is. It is time to figure out who I am in retirement. I am not going anywhere and I plan on being on the Four Rivers Health Community board,” said Higinbotham.

She plans to travel with her husband after retirement.

Higinbotham said she’s learned a lot about people working at Community in Action.

“You never know somebody’s background. You never know what they’ve gone through in their lives,” she said.

Higinbotham said as she looks back on her career and life, three major accomplishments stand out.

She is proud of her involvement with the $11 million, 70-unit townhouse project in northeast Ontario that is now nearly complete. She said she is also happy she could assist in the transition of the Presbyterian Community Care center into 56 affordable rental units. She said she was just fine with staying in the background while working to help those two projects get off the ground.

“You can know you are part of those things but you don’t have to have your face splashed in the newspaper,” said Higinbotham.

Former Ontario City Manager Adam Brown said working with Higinbotham was a positive experience.

“We had a lot of collaboration to get the small shelters (tiny houses) up and running. We worked together a lot to make that happen. She was someone who got stuff done,” said Brown.

Her other great accomplishment?

“Raising four kids,” she said.

Higinbotham said while the new director of Community in Action will start in February, she will still work a few weeks more to help with the transition.

Higinbotham said she hopes people understand the important role Community in Action plays in the county.

“Maybe an appreciation for the staff that do the work because they work really hard and they care about people,” said Higinbotham.

The ultimate aim of her organization, said Higinbotham, is to help people – “to try to figure out what their gaps or needs are and try to figure out if we have a program that meets their goals.”

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM – Available for $7.50 a month. Subscribe to the digital service of the Enterprise and get the very best in local journalism. We report with care, attention to accuracy, and an unwavering devotion to fairness. Get the kind of news you’ve been looking for – day in and day out from the Enterprise.