After about five years of fostering children, Mark Bulgin and his wife Tiffany welcomed a biological baby, Isaac in 1998. The child was born with a heart condition and lived just a few months.
“Losing Isaac awakened a parental instinct in us,” Bulgin said. “Since that time, it’s expanded way beyond foster care. We provide that space in our life where we would have looked after Isaac and offer that to kids in the community who find their way to Isaac’s Room.”
Named for their lost son, the Salem nonprofit aims to provide life skills, mentorship and employment to teens and young adults in the community. In June, their mission got a little easier.
The M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, a private nonprofit based in Washington, awarded Isaac’s Room $184,000 to hire a new director of operations. It was one of 76 grants awarded in the Pacific Northwest, totaling $32.5 million–about $11 million went specifically to Oregon, split between 27 nonprofits.
“We get stuck in the weeds,” Bulgin said, “so a director of operations will help us free up our time to play to our strengths and lift our vision above the day to day and do some more future planning and resource development.”
Currently, Isaac’s Room operates out of local coffee shop IKE Box, whose proceeds support the mission. In 2018, the Bulgins expanded by opening a second coffee shop, Isaac’s Downtown.
The nonprofit works to make programs like IKE Quest reach as many children as possible. Over the course of 20 years, about 500 teens between the ages of 14 and 20 have come through the doors, helped by Isaac’s Room.
“There are phases,” Bulgin says of the program, IKE Quest.
The first phase is a training camp that lasts about four weeks and consists of three sessions a week. At each session, participants have a work out, a class and a family dinner. The second phase is an internship that focuses on the skills needed not just to get a job, but to succeed in it. The third phase is a paid apprenticeship in an area of the coffee shop operations.
During the program, participants learn about the program’s key ideas, borrowed from the book “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” Personal responsibility, agency and recognizing your own power are among the key ideas and Bulgin said teens learn how to expand their circle of influence by focusing on where they already have influence–transitioning their mindset from being a victim to being the hero of their own story.
“It has its roots in foster care that my wife and I did for teens for about 16 years,” Bulgin said. “That experience showed us the potential that might be cleverly disguised in some kids but is nevertheless always there but also some of the activities that are effective in realizing that potential.”
Teens can come to Isaac’s Room from several places, Bulgin said. The couple’s connection to the local foster care system often leads to potential Isaac’s Room participants. Marion County Juvenile Department and Roberts High School – Salem’s alternative high school – also provide leads for teens who may need a helping hand.
The new director of operations will join a group of existing employees to help in getting kids settled into Isaac’s Room, but the position has yet to be filled. Once it is, the Murdock Trust award will fund the position for a full year and then gradually step down funding for the remaining two years.
“Caring young people are critical to the health of our community and worthy of our attention,” Bulgin said. “We’re grateful for the partnership of the Murdock Foundation. This will help us help each kid more.”
Contact reporter Caitlyn May at [email protected].
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Caitlyn May served as a journalist for nearly a decade in Nevada and in Linn Lane counties in Oregon with a focus on rural stories and long-form journalism. A graduate of both Oregon State University and the University of Oregon, she currently serves as an elementary school teacher but returns to journalism now and then, remaining a dedicated supporter of the Fourth Estate.