Issaquah nonprofit brings independent living to the disabled

Austin Brodeur, a spunky 22-year-old with a ready smile and a goofy sense of humor, sits slurping his Frappuccino at Starbucks. In the seat next to him is Natalie, his mother, whose welcoming laugh could put anyone at ease. As with many parents of young adults, she worries about her son’s future. Will he get a good job? When will he move out of the house? How will he earn his independence?

For Natalie Brodeur and her husband, Paul, these questions are particularly difficult to answer because Austin has Down syndrome.

“We go through the same problems as other parents. It’s just amplified when you have a developmentally disabled child,” Natalie said.

Luckily, the Brodeurs can turn to the Issaquah-based Life Enrichment Options (LEO) for advice and support.

The nonprofit organization began 21 years ago when Rose and Leo Finnegan faced a similar dilemma with their son Tim. At the time, there were few options for socialization, employment or housing for disabled adults, and when Tim graduated from Issaquah High School, the only real place for him was to stay with his parents.

The Finnegans knew they needed to find a way for their son to live independently while still providing him the care and safety he needed, so they joined forces with a handful of like-minded people to become advocates for developmentally disabled adults. The founders of LEO wanted to be the voice for these individuals and their families by providing recreational, social, vocational and educational opportunities, as well as helping them find appropriate housing.

The group started by addressing the issue of employment. Initially they thought they might need to become a job vendor, but they soon found established agencies that helped disabled adults find jobs. The parents chose to lobby the state legislature to increase funding for these job agencies, and began honoring employers who hired people with disabilities.

Recognizing that family and community support were vital to the life success of the disabled person, the founders implemented recreation and education programs at the Issaquah Community Center that are now among the best in King County.

While these gains are beneficial and progress is on-going, the most amazing accomplishment of this entirely volunteer-run organization is what they have done to address the housing crisis for this underrepresented segment of the population.

“We knew we weren’t going to live long enough to take care of our kids, and we wanted to be proactive in developing some kind of housing for them,” said Rose Finnegan, one of the LEO founders and a past president. “We studied many housing models, and we liked the adult family home model. Residents live as a family in a caring environment. They can be involved in the community, and the parents can still be around to give support as needed.”

In February 2003, the aptly named Rose House opened on SE Croston Lane in downtown Issaquah. This purpose-built adult family care facility was designed to house five individuals with developmental disabilities and their caregivers. Each resident has their own room.

Three years later LEO opened a second house in Issaquah on Highlands Drive. The Ann Dennis Adult Family Home, named for another founder and board member, was purchased from King County and remodeled to fit the needs of its new residents.

The success of both homes comes from the passion of those involved. When choosing residents for the LEO homes, preference is given to people who live in Issaquah, Sammamish and the Snoqualmie Valley, but the main objective is compatibility.

“You have to have people who are compatible living together,” said Rose Finnegan. The caregivers, current residents and potential residents, get together several times to see how they get along. While the process takes awhile, finding the right combination of tenants is crucial to the success of the house.

However, there is still great need for this kind of housing support in the area. According to the LEO website, Washington ranks in the lower 20 percent of the nation when it comes to providing for the disabled. There are approximately 200 special education students enrolled in the Issaquah and Snoqualmie Valley school districts who will need independent living assistance in the future.

To help meet this need, the LEO group is now in the beginning stages of opening a third adult family home. They have worked with Port Blakely, developer of the Issaquah Highlands, to purchase a lot on 25th Avenue NE near NE Logan Street and hope to begin construction later this year.

Unlike many homeowners, LEO doesn’t carry mortgages on their properties. Both of the existing houses are debt free and were paid for by private donations. In addition to individual donations, the organization has received generous support from both the Issaquah and Sammamish Rotary Clubs and the many car clubs that frequent the Triple XXX Rootbeer Drive-in.

“Susan and Marv Nielsen, who are with the Sunset Highway Cruisers, started asking, and are continuing to ask, for donations for LEO from every car club that has a show at the XXX,” said Rose Finnegan. “Jose Encisco, owner of the XXX, is also part of this car club.”

Construction on the new house is contingent on LEO receiving enough donations. On Aug. 15, they will host a fundraising kick-off event at the Issaquah Highlands site of the third home. Their goal is to raise $100,000 in 100 days. Anyone who shows up will be treated to apple pie and lemonade.

Back at Starbucks, though Austin seems carefree as he watches coffee patrons flit in and out, he knows that independence is a part of getting older, so he and his parents are hopeful that LEO will meet its goal. Austin is one of 15 adults on the waiting list for the new LEO house, which will only accommodate five. Regardless of whether it is at the third LEO house or another facility, getting Austin into an adult family home is crucial.

“The longer he’s been able to be independent, the better off he’ll be. I’m not going to be around forever,” said Natalie Brodeur, tears briefly forming in the corners of her eyes. “Who will take care of him later?”

To donate to the new LEO house, or for more information, e-mail, or phone 425-392-5682.