After only two days on the job as the new executive director of Laramie Interfaith, Josh Watanabe has his work cut out for him. He is relishing the opportunity the challenges are providing him.
“It’s a whole new experience, taking the leadership ring during a pandemic,” said Watanabe. “You start a new job and have a whole lot of things thrown at you.”
Watanabe came upon the executive director opening practically as a fluke.
“I randomly stumbled upon it online,” he said.
He had been with the Wyoming Humanities Council six-and-a-half years at the time and was the director of operations. He basically ran the place but was not the main person in charge, more like being the No. 2 person in charge, he said.
Although he hails from Westminister, Colorado, Watanabe has long been a fixture in Laramie, and his name is a familiar one to many, from his two year tenure as the night editor at the Laramie Boomerang from 2010-2012, to his six-and-a-half years with the Wyoming Humanities Council.
Prior to that, though, he has had an interesting career path, starting as in the food industry with a number of restaurants in the Denver area, working in every area from fast food to fine dining.
He soon wearied of that and entered into construction, which brought him to Wyoming, and later to Laramie in 2004. Eventually, he enrolled at the University of Wyoming and earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 2012.
“It took me seven years because I was also working full-time,” he said. Eventually, Watanabe went on to earn a master’s of science degree in 2018 (through Colorado State University) in project management with a concentration in strategic leadership and change management. “We’re sort of the ‘anti-MBA. I focus more on leadership and people, but not in a human resources way.”
The initial daysOne of the immediate challenges he was facing after only two days on the job — he started Monday — was being short-staffed, as one member had tested positive for COVID-19.
However, he is undaunted.
While momentarily short-staffed, his immediate to mid-range goals are going to be his focus, starting with the food pantry. It’s currently well-stocked, but like food pantries elsewhere, that can fluctuate. Again, for the time being, inventory is good.
Excluding donations from private citizens, much of what is offered comes from one of two sources: grocery stores and restaurants.
But the pantry is not the only aspect of Laramie Interfaith.
“On top of that we do homeless prevention,” he said. Since the pandemic, this may have become more of a priority than in previous times. “There is a homeless situation. There are people who are challenged.”
Due to the pandemic, a number of people are in a crisis situation. There are those who have lost jobs, and for the “fortunate ones,” they might still have jobs but have had their hours cut; there may be situations in which salaries have been trimmed.
“It ends up with deciding whether to pay a bill or put food on the table. You can end up on a path spiraling downward and not being able getting out of it,” he said.
To help mitigate that, Laramie Interfaith can help by paying a utility, rent or mortgage bill. For those homeless, said Watanabe, they work with the local motels to set up temporary shelter.
“In some situations we buy Greyhound bus tickets and send homeless to bigger cities which are better able to assist,” he said. Watanabe added that this is getting harder to do because the larger cities are also facing the same crisis as is Laramie.
(Laramie Interfaith also helps travelers who become stranded due to weather conditions.)
On the immediate front, Laramie Interfaith is gathering food items for nearly 300 families in order that they may be able to celebrate Thanksgiving. While their regular sources are working in conjunction with them — supermarkets, grocery stores, etc. — they still are seeking donations.
The Thanksgiving give-away will be held Monday-Wednesday at First Baptist Church, 1517 Canby Street.
“Unfortunately, the deadline for signing up was yesterday (Monday, Nov. 16),” he said. “The hours of distribution will be 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Then we will take a break and resume from 4 – 6 p.m.”
After Thanksgiving, the focus will be on a Tuesday challenge known as “Giving Tuesday.” While there is Black Friday, Shop Local Saturday, Cyber Monday, “Giving Tuesday” differs, he said. It’s a day for not shopping and instead making a donation to charity. He asked that people contribute to the United Way campaign currently underway, as Laramie Interfaith is a beneficiary.
For now, Watanabe said he expects his greater challenge looms over the horizon.
“We’re trying to prepare for a difficult year or two,” he said.
Watanabe has high hopes words of praise for the people of Laramie. They are a most caring and giving community.
“Our mission is ‘Neighbors helping neighbors,’” he said.