Woman with Down syndrome retires after fulfilling career

Shelli Fanning, 46, worked as housekeeper at Red Lion at the Quay for 23 years

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

Shelli retires from the Red Lion

Shelli Fanning, 46, who has Down syndrome, retires after a 23-year career as a housekeeper at the Red Lion Inn at the Quay.

Within days of Shelli Fanning's birth she was labeled "nothing but a vegetable," recalls her mom, who was advised to put her in an institution. The diagnosis was Down syndrome. Later Shelli was also determined to be legally blind.

Kate Fanning, already the gutsy mother of four, couldn't have cared less. "I said you're crazy," she remembered. "I told them what they could do with that piece of paper."

Forty-six years later, Shelli Fanning has just hung up her apron and rubber gloves after a 23-year housekeeping career at the Red Lion Hotel Vancouver at the Quay. Jan. 3 was her last day, and she made her usual rounds — emptying the trash, sorting the laundry, cleaning the carpets, dusting the furniture — in her usual, wonderful way.

That means big grins and laughs, and hugs for all her colleagues.

"Shelli for me is like my daughter," said Vera Babiy, a Ukrainian native who supervised Shelli on the job for 17 years. "She is very smart. She always ask me, tell me, she hug me every day. When she work, everybody happy. She make everybody happy." Shelli's arrival at work was always like the sun coming out, Babiy said.

Colleagues walked a fine line between nurturing Shelli and treating her as an equal member of the team who was expected to do her job and to do it well. To facilitate that, she was visited as needed by a job coach dispatched by the agency that first placed her. Shelli outlasted several of those coaches over the years; the current coach, Carolyn Newton, has approximately 15 clients in similar situations, and spends her workweek checking on all of them.

Newton's employer is Goldman & Associates, a firm launched by Norm Goldman a couple of decades ago — back when people with developmental disabilities could hope for no more meaningful employment than busywork in a "sheltered workshop." But Goldman, a trained chef who'd worked alongside such people in the kitchen, realized he could carve out a niche matching understanding employers with eager workers who only needed a little assistance.

"Shelli was my first supported employment client," Goldman said. "She is a leader. She is the archetype for the growth of this field. Over the past 20 years there has been tremendous progress."

Two decades ago, the idea of systematically helping people with developmental disabilities succeed in the working world was "unheard of," Goldman said. Now, Goldman & Associates (workingwithabilities.com), based in Hazel Dell, has a track record of approximately 500 placements, with 60 clients currently pulling down paychecks at local workplaces from the Old Spaghetti Factory to Clark County Public Works.

Goldman only wishes more employers would overcome their trepidation and give it a go, he said. They would learn that these special employees "don't just survive but thrive," said Goldman's marketing director, Brittian Bullock.

"I think a lot of employers are scared, but also don't realize that it won't be up to them to make this work," job coach Newton said. "It's our job to get our clients to be able to work independently."

Standing ovation

There's a satisfied twinkle in Kate Fanning's eye.

She's proud of the long and happy employment that had Shelli's Red Lion colleagues elect her Employee of the Month more than once. She's proud of helping to pressure the state Legislature to guarantee special education for children such as Shelli in public schools. And she's proud of pushing Vancouver schools to make sure special education students were treated fairly, with all the bells and whistles everybody else got — like caps and gowns and full participation in graduation.

"I am not afraid to speak up when something isn't right," said Kate, who sweetly characterized her earliest interactions with public school officials as "hounding and threatening."

She knew it was all worth it when those special-ed kids, who used to have a quiet and hidden-away ceremony, were "the only ones who got a standing ovation" as they walked the aisle at a Hudson's Bay commencement, she said.

Through it all, Shelli kept exceeding expectations. With repetition, Kate said, Shelli mastered nearly every skill she tried to learn. When the family lived in Everett for a time, Shelli dismantled and cleaned telephone equipment and packed wire; back in Vancouver, Kate grew frustrated with the usual discouragement of her daughter — no she can't — and found her way to Goldman & Associates. Within days, Shelli was working at the Quay.

It took some time and on-the-job testing to figure out what was easy for Shelli and what required more training and practice, and to set a reasonable number of work hours (not quite 20) per week. But to say that Shelli was coddled or that her work wasn't valuable is absolutely untrue, according to Red Lion General Manager Paul Thornton. When Shelli was on trash detail, he said, he learned to stand back.

"She is very dedicated — and very stubborn," Thornton laughed. "When she is doing her job, you don't get in her way."

She knew everybody's name and birthday. She was the rare employee who enjoyed staff meetings, Thornton said. She liked to sing while she worked. She didn't have a whole lot to say, though, and even less to a visiting reporter than to her mom and her friends.

Losing her is truly tough, Thornton said. "This is an emotional day for the ladies in housekeeping," he said.

Realistic

People with Down syndrome start to age quickly at a certain point, Kate said, and Shelli, at 46, has reached it. Everybody has noticed that her abilities are slipping. She got a little confused about some of her tasks in the past few months, and Babiy said Shelli started complaining of feeling tired. Kate — who is Shelli's legal guardian — figured it would be best for Shelli to step away before anything goes wrong on the job.

Kate and Shelli have long lived together in a modest home east of Grand in Fourth Plain Village, but Kate said her daughter has been getting acclimated to longer and longer stays with a relative in Springfield, Ore. That's where she'll go to live when Kate cannot manage anymore.

"I physically can't be her guardian anymore," said Kate, 86. "My legs are bad, my heart is bad."

But her can-do spirit appears satisfied.

The moral of this story, Kate said, is the way she raised Shelli with plenty of love and plenty of expectations. That's pretty typical, Goldman said: "You can build up a web of advocates and supports, but it all starts with the family."

Kate said: "I have treated her all my life like the rest of my kids, with high expectations. Of course I did it in a very gentle way. But I never treated her as a 'handicapped' child. It has proved to be very successful."