Images by Drew Altizer Photography
When it comes to making a change for underserved communities, there are countless unsung heroes deserving of recognition and appreciation. It takes heart, tenacity, and commitment to leave a positive impact. In the Bay Area, there are few individuals who have what it takes to improve the day-to-day lives of those with developmental disabilities. Nancy Dow Moody is one of those exceptional individuals.
A former Special Olympics coach, Nancy serves as President and CEO of Lifehouse, a 501(c)(3) non-profit agency that provides personalized support services to over 250 individuals with developmental disabilities in Marin and Sonoma Counties. Through life-skills training, community integration, advocacy, referrals and community information, Lifehouse opens the doors of opportunity and independence to individuals with developmental disabilities.
For Nancy, challenging the status quo is no small task. During her tenure at Lifehouse, she has developed numerous new programs; some of these include the development of new affordable housing, the coalition for social and recreation programs for young teens and adults, a senior program and supported living programs.
Recently, she talked with us about her inspiration, Lifehouse’s impact, and how we can help.
Before joining Lifehouse, how were you touched by personal experiences with the community of developmentally disabled?
I began volunteering when I was 16. I was a coach for Special Olympics and I volunteered at an institution in Massachusetts for children with developmental disabilities. I fell in love with those kids and continued to work there in college for my practicum. There was one boy who didn’t have family involvement and I took him home for holidays and weekend visits with my family. John particularly liked my brother, Ted. Many years later I was called to work with a group of young men who had moved from the institution into a community group home and were having difficulty adjusting to their new life in the community. When I walked in, there was John! He remembered me and asked to visit my brother Ted. I loaded the four young men into my car and we spent the day with my family. It was a healing day for everyone.
I also had a Boy Scout troupe of kids with developmental disabilities. It was a fun group! The Dad of one of the boys was the Director of the Perkins School for the Blind. I was offered a job at the school operating the first program for children with multiple disabilities and that solidified my career. I was so excited to be paid to do what I loved!
Tell us about how Lifehouse serves the community of those who are developmentally disabled.
Lifehouse has been serving the Marin Community since 1954. We started with a group of parents who wanted an educational program for their children with disabilities. In partnership with Dominican University that program flourished. Lifehouse has continued to respond to our community needs. Over time Lifehouse has developed a comprehensive continuum of residential services supporting individuals from a few hours weekly to around the clock support depending on the need. We started a teen recreation program 10 years ago that has grown to serve young people in Sonoma County. When it became apparent that the need for autism services was growing, several staff traveled to University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill to be trained in the TEACH method (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication Handicapped Children). We currently serve over 40 people with autism in our community and the numbers are growing.
We’ve recently embarked on an Assistive Communication Technology program. We are purchasing iPods’ and computers with specialized apps to assist in using technology. Many of the individuals we serve are unable to use the conventional devise, don’t have the finances to purchase the technology and require individual instruction to operate. This can open a new realm of communication for the people that Lifehouse serves.
Can you share any special stories about lives that have been impacted?
I’d like to share the story of a young woman served by Lifehouse who lives in a Lifehouse affordable home in Marin. In the past she was called “crazy”, was bullied in school and acted out behaviorally. She now lives with 3 friends and has a full-time job in the community. She visited me on her day off 2 weeks ago to ask if there was a way that we can organize a group to travel to Europe on vacation. She has never been and would like to start saving for a really special trip. I put her in touch with the Lifehouse staff person who organizes the Lifehouse trips to destinations such as Disney, a cruise to Mexico, Tahoe and Las Vegas. They are now checking to see if others would be interested in participating in the trip of a lifetime! Having choices and being in control of your life can make such a difference!
What inspired you eventually move into the role of CEO?
I moved to California in 1990 after my son was born having had a 15 year career in Massachusetts working for Perkins School for the Blind, The Department of Mental Health and administering community residential programs. When I was ready to return to work I did my research and decided that Lifehouse (then MARC) was the agency that best matched my values/philosophy in supporting individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. In 1992 I applied to only one agency, Lifehouse. I took a part time job and within a month I was promoted to the Director of Services position and then COO/ Vice President. When the position of President and CEO became available it seemed like the natural next step for me. I haven’t regretted it!
How do events such as “Great Chefs and Wineries” and your recent Awards Banquet impact your organization, as well as the community?
Both events bring us together as a community. The Awards Banquet is to recognize our community supporters, our staff and the people we serve. Awards are given to the members of the community who have supported Lifehouse in a variety of ways from volunteering, philanthropy, and offering their unique skills to further the Lifehouse mission. We honor six Lifehouse staff to recognize their extraordinary work over the past year working with our clients. All of the people we serve receive an award acknowledging their success over the past year. Three hundred people fill the dining room at the Embassy Suites and enjoy dinner together and of course there is music and dancing! It is definitely a “feel good” evening.
The Great Chefs and Wineries is an elegant event for 500 guests featuring fabulous food and wine from 25 restaurants and 25 wineries, live music and is our major fundraising event of the year. We are so grateful to the participating restaurants and wineries, donors of auction items and the sponsors of the event. We could not provide the quality services that Lifehouse is known for without the generosity of so many that come together to make this event such a marvelous success for our community both financially and as a wonderful party! Great Chefs and Wineries is now in the 27th year!
How has Lifehouse grown over the years?
The organization has more than doubled in size over the past 6 years from a budget of $6.5 million to our current $13.5 million. This means that we are assisting more individuals to live in and be a part of their community, leading meaningful lives. Lifehouse now offers specialty services for people with autism, a growing need in our community.
We currently employ more than 290 people performing meaningful jobs. We offer our staff a complete benefits package including a Wellness Program and matching retirement benefits. This helps cut down on turnover that can negatively affect the people we serve. We have some employees who have been with Lifehouse for over 25 years and the turnover rate is 14.5%, which is extremely low for our industry.
What does Lifehouse need right now – donation, volunteers, space?
We always need more money! As we continue to grow and serve more individuals the gap between the revenue we receive from the state of CA and the federal government continues to grow as well. We currently need to raise over $1 million annually to make ends meet. Volunteers are such an asset to Lifehouse. They help us to plan and put on our events and to assist the individuals we serve to be fully included.
Looking ahead, where do you see the organization 5-10 years from now?
I hope that Lifehouse continues to evolve to meet the changing needs of our community. My wish is that in the near future Lifehouse can begin to work with very young children in an effort to include them in integrated programs at an early age.
I would like to work with the community to have affordable, safe housing available for people with developmental disabilities and others who are generally in the very low income group. I think all can benefit from integrated living environments.
I’d like to offer opportunity to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to have meaningful employment and or volunteer experience.
Lifehouse will continue to work with our legislators to keep the unique needs of individuals with developmental disabilities on the political agenda.
An onsite technology program availability to anyone in our community who needs that service.
What is your personal goal?
To have people with intellectual and developmental disabilities be included and seen as contributing members of our communities and be truly accepted and valued for who they are. Though we all have differences, there are some essential things that are the same for all of us. I believe we all desire to have meaning and happiness in our lives. This group of individuals adds to the diversity in our communities that makes life more interesting for all of us.