Whatcom CityZen Invites You to be Part of the Solution

Bellingham’s Steve Avila loves being of service. The owner of two local businesses (Fitness Evolution and Overhead Door Company), Avila is not one to complain about things. He’s a born problem solver who – rather than gripe – finds a way to pitch in when help is needed. And on top of that, he’s a master at inspiring others to join him. When the Nooksack River flooded in November 2021, during the dark days of the pandemic, he decided it was time to step up. He launched an organization of volunteers entitled Whatcom CityZen, offering aid to families affected by the flooding. The new organization’s goal was to “create a culture of service and compassion, where everyone is respected and valued, and where our collective efforts make a positive and lasting impact.”

Whatcom CityZen has also made its presence felt at local trailheads, where “smash and grab” car break-ins have become a problem in recent years. The group organized volunteers to take turns monitoring trailhead parking lots, drastically reducing these incidents.

Impressed by Avilla’s ethos, we wanted to know more, and what we learned in a deep-dive Q&A only inspired us further. His altruistic “can do” approach is truly a breath of fresh air at a time when we need all the fresh air we can get.

Steven Avila and the Whatcom CityZen crew on duty at the Y Road Trailhead, a popular spot for the Whatcom County Backcountry Horsemen. Photo courtesy of Whatcom CityZen


Can you describe what Whatcom CityZen is about?

We are a group of passionate individuals dedicated to making a positive impact in our community. We believe that everyone should have the opportunity to contribute to the betterment of our community, and that’s why we provide volunteer opportunities that promote meaningful engagement and foster a sense of belonging. Our volunteer organization offers a variety of services such as litter pickup, graffiti removal, crime prevention, food drives, adopt-a-family events, and many other activities that involve helping others. We have weekly events that are structured in small time slots so that it is easy and convenient for everyone to participate. We also participate in college community service programs to help students gain valuable experience and make a difference in their community. We are committed to providing quality services that improve the lives of those in need and create a more vibrant, safe, and healthy community. We strive to create a culture of service and compassion where everyone is respected and valued, and our collective efforts make a positive and lasting impact.

What prompted you to start Whatcom CityZen? 

During the pandemic times, when I saw the increase in crime, litter, graffiti, polarizing viewpoints, and a decrease in overall well-being in our county, I figured that something needed to be done to bring people together. Helping others is always a great way to rally and make people feel good. Nothing gets people motivated more than having a purpose that makes them feel good and enhances self-value through the happiness that comes from helping others.

When did you launch this effort? 

At the end of 2021, when the flood happened, I did a rally for the flood victims. It was amazing how many people stepped up to help the 54 families we adopted.

Any thoughts on why ‘smash and grabs’ at trailheads have become such a problem in recent years? 

There are a number of possible factors that could be contributing to the increase in smash-and-grab thefts at trailheads. One possible explanation is simply that more people are using trailheads for outdoor recreation, which means there are more potential targets for thieves. In addition, trailheads are often located in secluded areas, making them prime targets for criminals looking for easy targets with minimal risk of being caught. Another possible factor is the rise of social media, making it easier for thieves to identify popular trailheads and target vehicles parked there. Finally, the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic may have contributed to the increase in thefts, as people may be more desperate for cash or other valuables. Regardless of the reasons behind the rise in trailhead thefts, it’s clear that this problem needs to be addressed to keep community members safe and secure. The recent escalation may also result from law changes during the pandemic, reducing consequences for these actions. I think we can all learn a lesson from the events of the last few years and draw some wisdom from them. “Acceptance” is a word that I feel compliments “purpose” in that you need to accept when you make a wrong decision and own up to it and fix it. You also need to accept that things beyond your control may happen, and you can only change what’s within your wheelhouse. The purpose behind CityZen is that although you cannot always change things from the top down, you can certainly influence the changes in your immediate neighborhood. If you focus on that simple task, then others will join, and you will start to affect the world around you in a positive way. If each neighborhood adopted these principles, the world would change.

At what trailheads is CityZen a presence? 

We go to any trailhead having issues. We get this information from citizens and municipalities. It’s a random selection, and now that we are growing, we hope to be at more than one trailhead at a time. We ask our volunteers to make suggestions and then we schedule the events each week based on this information.

(L-R) Brad J, Josip Slipcevic, Asia Warren, Steven Avila, Christine Thompson, and Gail Johnson at the North Chuckanut Mountain Trailhead. Photo courtesy of Whatcom CityZen


In addition to the trailhead work, I understand there is a graffiti cleanup effort. Can you speak to that? 

Certainly, people notice how much graffiti and litter are happening around town. We received training in graffiti removal from the Downtown Bellingham Partnership and now work closely with them to identify areas where they need help removing graffiti. We also have scheduled litter patrols where we identify zones and clean the area.

How has the community responded to this initiative? 

The community response has been overwhelmingly positive. The organization has grown to include over 400 volunteers and continues to attract new members each week. In addition to the trailhead work, through organized efforts like litter pickup, graffiti removal, and food bank partnerships, Whatcom CityZen has made a tangible difference in the community. By engaging community members in these initiatives, the organization has helped build a sense of neighborliness and a feeling of community pride. Additionally, as local businesses and citizens become more involved in funding ongoing efforts, it will help to expand the project throughout the city and county. Overall, the community has embraced Whatcom CityZen and its mission of positive change, and the organization continues to grow and make a difference in the community.

Tell us about yourself. What inspires you to work on behalf of the common good as you do? 

 I think it’s just who I am. I have always been one to help other people and just love the feeling of doing so. We all want a happy world; it takes work to make that happen. Work gives me purpose and drives me to get up and embrace each day with positive energy. I always immerse myself in projects that help others, mostly due to the oxytocin and dopamine release it gives me. So maybe I’m selfish in that regard!

What are your outdoor or recreational proclivities?  

I love to take walks and hike. Being outdoors has always been a passion for me.

How long have you been in Bellingham, and where from? 

I started my life in South Philadelphia, but when I turned seven, I decided to move my parents to Washington State. I grew up in the Puyallup area but have lived in Orting, Federal Way, Des Moines, and Auburn. I moved to Bellingham in 2019.

How can folks become involved? 

Individuals can get involved with the CityZen project by visiting the project’s website, www.citiyzennow.com, or social media pages to learn more about upcoming volunteer opportunities and initiatives. The project also encourages individuals to contact project leaders directly to express their interest and get involved by emailing whatcomcityzen@gmail.com to receive our weekly signups. We keep the shifts short (30 minutes), and if each person in our county donated 30 minutes each month, we could organize that time with others to do many things. Also, due to our size, we have created a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation where people can donate so that we have the funding to grow this effort. By engaging with the project and volunteering their time and expertise, individuals can help make a positive impact in their community and build meaningful connections with their fellow community members.

What kind of results have you seen? 

The CityZen project has had a significant impact on the community thus far. Through its organized volunteer efforts, the project has removed hundreds of pounds of litter and a lot of graffiti from city streets and parks. In addition, we have provided critical support to local food banks and families in need and engaged hundreds of community members in service and outreach initiatives. The project has also created a sense of community and connectedness among volunteers and community members, bringing people together from all walks of life to work toward a common goal so that we all look out for each other. Doing so offers intangible benefits for all.

Become a Volunteer!

Learn more about Whatcom CityZen and sign up to volunteer your time to help make a difference in our community at cityzennow.com or contact them at whatcomcityzen@gmail.com

One comment

  1. Hello, can you put me on your email list and possibly list for volunteers? I met Steve when we were neighbors at Maple Park Apartments and would love to help the community.

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