'Deviation' & innovation Innovative Services NW celebrates 50 years

Agency specializes in caring for the disadvantaged and the developmentally delayed

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter



Agency grapples with rising need, falling funding

When the Washington State Legislature almost failed to pass a budget by July 1, Innovative Services NW got ready to break bad news to some of its clients.

Child care benefits for low-income people and adult day care would have faced cuts, vice president for development and marketing Kathy Deschner said, and the supervised visitation program for foster children and parents would have “completely shut down.”

“We spent a lot of time contingency planning, and we had messages ready to go up on the website,” Deschner said. “We were waiting for information day by day, hour by hour. We were looking at every contract we have. We were all over the place.”

Unpredictable public funding is one of the biggest challenges the agency faces, she said. (And consider, she added, how much money was spent statewide on contingency planning — instead of services for people — by agencies that didn’t know until the last moment what funding they could count on).

The number of clients receiving services has climbed 45 percent over the past couple of years while overall funding has dropped by 20 percent, Deschner said. And, Medicaid reimbursement rates for the services Innovative provides are falling, Deschner added, while costs are rising. Too often, insurance companies reject requests for payment until they’ve been submitted multiple times — and even when they’re paid, there’s often a months-long delay.

“But we can’t delay paying the staff,” she said. “Like many nonprofits, we are caught in the middle.” Filling critical service gaps hampers the agency’s ability to grow and take on new projects, she said.

Private donations and foundation grants that aren’t affected by public budgets are crucial, she said.

— Scott Hewitt

Innovative Services NW

Clients: Approximately 1,100 people served each week.

Program offerings: 16 different programs for infants and children; foster youth and families; and adults and seniors.

Staff: 57 full time, 103 part time.

Volunteers: 200, contributing more than 5,000 hours annually.

Projected fiscal 2013-14 budget: $5 million.

Home base: After years of rented and scattered sites, the agency conducted a five-year, $7.3 million capital campaign to build its own three-story building, the Mary Firstenburg Family Center at 9414 N.E. Fourth Plain Road. It opened in May 2008. Foundation grants and philanthropic gifts made up the bulk of the money, along with $1.9 million from the state of Washington.

Information: 360-892-5142.

On the Web:


Jennie Kennedy cannot wait to hug you. You'd better just submit.

Some people do wish she'd cool it a little, but that's not going to happen. Others, such as the parishioners at St. Mary of Guadalupe church north of Ridgefield, where Kennedy serves as irrepressible greeter, feel neglected if they don't get some Jennie love on a regular basis. "I haven't got my hug today," they'll cheerfully complain.

"I see how Jennie touches other people's lives all the time, in a way I never could," said her mother, Sue. "There isn't anybody who isn't her new best friend."

A long-standing best friend of the Kennedys, and thousands of others who struggle with disabilities and disadvantages of all sorts, is Innovative Services NW. The nonprofit agency, which began as a grass-roots support group for parents and grew into one of Clark County's most multifaceted human service providers, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

As the venerated Arc of Southwest Washington has dwindled in recent years, losing public funding and increasingly relying on peer and parent support and clothing resale revenues, Innovative Services has expanded into the niche of providing professional services to children and others in need. It has the county's largest pediatric therapy clinic and contracts with all public school districts and Clark County to provide early intervention for children who exhibit developmental delays, disabilities and other diagnosed conditions, from autism to traumatic brain injury.

There's no cost for these services if you qualify. The agency also takes private insurance, Medicaid and fees for services. At age 3, many children transition to public special education services -- but some prefer to stick with Innovative.

There's also an on-site childcare center that's open to all children, birth to age 12, whether or not they're developing typically. Capacity is 91 children; 20 percent have special needs, and 72 percent are low income.

Innovative's services are potentially lifelong. It is deeply involved in local foster care, recruiting foster families and providing help for foster children who need intensive case management, supervising visits between noncustodial parents and children, and providing support for young adults who are aging out of the foster care system.

And, for adults, Innovative runs both day care and a supported-employment program -- providing training and on-the-job supervision for eager people who need help to pull down a paycheck. Innovative's janitorial services program dispatches working clients to as many as 32 customers in 74 buildings throughout Clark County.

They include Jennie Kennedy, who is 42 years old but has the mind of a 3-year old, according to her mom, and who works a handful of hours per week as a janitor for the county and for Innovative itself. She's known as a master of the cheerful broom at work -- and the effusive, slightly intrusive greeting at church and everywhere else she goes.

"People are so generous with

her, and allowing her to invade their space," tittered Sue. "At church, people see God in her."

Parent power

Jennie's life could easily have taken a turn for the anonymously tragic.

Jennie was born in 1970 and was "too good a baby," Sue recalled. Too placid, too compliant. The label for such children at that time was "retarded," and it was generally assumed that they would wind up institutionalized. It's better that way, parents were assured -- by their very own doctors. Just don't get too connected.

"You have all kinds of emotions when you learn that your child isn't normal," said Sue Kennedy. "For one thing, you know you're not qualified to give the child everything she needs." The combination of physical and mental challenge and sheer tedium can be too much for any parent, she said.

But a couple of doctors proved more enlightened than the times; they advised Sue to get help rather than lock Jennie away. And other parents assured Sue that raising such a child would be "a deviation from your dreams, but it doesn't mean life can't be good."

So, when Jennie was 2, Sue enrolled her in the Clark Care and Development Center, which had started in 1963 as a parents' club.

"It was a new field then," said Sue, and there wasn't much research pointing the way toward treatment and training for people like Jennie.

The teachers practically made it up as then went along, she said; what they lacked in resources, they more than made up for in love and dedication.

"You don't go into this field for the pay and benefits," she said.

Sue drove Jennie down to the site on Fourth Plain Boulevard every day in a "big green van" that became her signature and her way of life; along the way, she picked up other kids headed for what they called Clark Care. She'd return at the end of the day to proud smiles from Jennie and her teachers alike: "Look what Jennie can do now!"

Sue wound up spending 25 years on the board of what became Innovative Services NW; she also helped build special education programs in Vancouver Public Schools.

"It was very empowering," she said. "When you volunteer as a parent, you're not just helping your own child. You're helping this whole community."

Getting involved with Innovative Services "did as much for me as it did for Jennie," she said.

Creatively custodial

Jennie stayed in special education classes at Vancouver Public Schools through her early 20s, Sue said; then she went back to spending her days with Clark Care and its "sheltered" workshop, which kept developmentally delayed clients occupied with busywork. But attitudes were changing, and laws eventually followed; it was decided that "these folks needed to be out in the community," Sue said. The sheltered workshop shut down, and Innovative lived up to its new name by "getting creative," Sue said: it launched a supported job-placement and custodial service.

Jennie now works for pay in the early evenings three days a week. Her skills will always be rudimentary, Sue said: she sweeps and empties wastebaskets while monitored by a job coach. Nine Innovative clients currently do this work. The agency bids for contracts like any other company, according to development and marketing director Kathy Deschner.

"Sometimes that leaves a very small margin for us," she said.

"But you'll never find a happier group of workers," added spokeswoman Susan Veneruso.

Employers who are willing to take a risk on this crew are amply rewarded, she said, with enthusiasm from people who are thrilled to have somewhere to go, something to do and some money to make. Innovative employees are paid market wages for their work.

So are higher-functioning Innovative clients who work for employers such as Burgerville, C-Tran, New Seasons Market and the Pythian Home retirement community. Those folks are individually placed and also supervised by a job coach. Deschner said Innovative is always looking for employers willing to try the arrangement. For people who aren't ready for paid employment, Veneruso added, their are similarly supervised volunteer gigs.

Sue said Jennie uses some of her pay to do things she likes to do -- such as go on bowling outings to Big Al's and work out at the Marshall Center. In June, Jennie went with a local group to a conference on supported employment in Ellensburg and "had a wonderful time," Sue said. "The things she is able to do in her life, now, are just amazing."

Taught to teach

Innovative's mission, Veneruso pointed out, is making sure people reach their fullest potential. Plenty of parents "walk through the door with no hope and no idea" what's wrong with their children, she said. Early therapy and training can make a world of difference.

For example, there's little Mason Nelson. He's another "failure to thrive" baby whose parents discovered Innovative when he was 6 months old. His mom, Kristen, said Innovative's therapist "taught us how to teach him" -- that is, how to build his muscles and stimulate his senses -- and helped select the right toys and foods for the delayed little boy, whose body doesn't produce any saliva. That makes eating and swallowing a challenge.

Mason progressed slowly -- learning to crawl, to sit up, to feed himself -- thanks to weekly in-home occupational therapy visits; at one year the Nelsons started taking Mason to Innovative's building near Westfield Vancouver mall for physical therapy, too. He did so well that his parents decided to stick with Innovative even as Mason also made the regular transition to public preschool at age 3.

But there was never any diagnosis for Mason's situation until he was nearly 31/2 years old: Angelman syndrome. That's a rare genetic neurological disorder that results in severe developmental delay and seizures -- and, oddly, a happy, laughing demeanor. It resembles and is often misdiagnosed as cerebral palsy, Kristen said.

When The Columbian visited the Nelson home in Brush Prairie, Mason beamed as he hung onto furniture and grappled his way around the room. He doesn't speak but can understand what's said; at age 4, he "plays like a 1 to 2 year old," Kristen said. His younger brother, 2-year-old Matt, is an excellent peer influence and challenger for him, she said, spurring him to more ambitious play and imitation.

The diagnosis was a tremendous relief, because "everything finally lined up," she said -- but it also means that Mason will always need therapy and basic care. Angelman is so rare -- estimated at one in 15,000 births -- there's no local support group specifically for it, Kristen said. (There is an Angelman Syndrome Foundation, based in Aurora, Ill., at http://www.angelman.org).

But there is the community that's grown up around Innovative, she added. "We have met so many people I never would have met," she said. "I know Mason has touched them and we've been touched by them. Everybody knows everybody and it's just a warm place to be. Innovative is really a part of our family now."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.