Larry Berg (nearest) enthusiastically helps Willow Place activity manager Rachel Hawkins (center) lead a modified yoga class early Tuesday at Quilceda Community Services in Marysville. (Dan Bates / The Herald)

Program for developmentally disabled adults looks to expand

MARYSVILLE — A group of adults with developmental disabilities, plus a handful of caregivers, came into Willow Place on Tuesday for their morning classes.

The yoga class was in the music room. The 450-square-foot room was barely large enough to accommodate 28 people sitting in a tight circle.

It was originally supposed to be a Zumba exercise class, but there was no way they’d have space for it.

“At this point if you have two or three people in a wheelchair you can’t do Zumba in the room, it’s just too crowded,” said Karen Harper, a founding board member of Quilceda Community Services, which owns and operates Willow Place.

The nonprofit is embarking on an expansion plan that would double the size of Willow Place in order to accommodate the burgeoning day program. If all the permits come in as planned, construction could begin by summer, Harper said.

When Willow Place was established in a church basement in 2008, just eight people attended. It grew, and when Quilceda Community Services bought the current house in 2011, it was deemed a good size for the program.

Now there are 182 registrants, Harper said.

“We didn’t expect the growth to be so phenomenal so fast,” she said.

Willow Place puts on two three-hour programs daily that keep to a strict schedule, because some people with autism or other cognitive disorders become anxious if their routine is disrupted.

The visitors come from all over Snohomish County. The Arlington, Marysville and Mukilteo school districts also send some students over one day a week, Harper said.

In the yoga class, activity manager Rachel Hawkins kept the people moving through their exercises. The class was in a talkative mood.

“One arm forward, one foot forward,” she said, demonstrating the stretching moves and making sure everyone is paying attention. “Switching feet — Jeff? Switching feet.”

Midway through the lesson, two more people joined the class.

After a 45-minute session, the entire group filed into the narrow hallway down to the art room. The room was slightly larger than the music room, but was equally crowded with art tables in the center and shelves of art materials and games lining the walls.

The attendees have a wide range of disabilities, from mild autism to Down syndrome and physiological conditions like blindness, cerebral palsy and spina bifida. Some are nonverbal and some are irrepressible chatterboxes.

Mike Appellof introduced himself to visitors in the room.”I’m Mike,” he said, then dropped his voice down to a Cookie Monsterish register: “The Undertaker!”

Hawkins laughed. “He does impressions a lot. You should ask for Elmo.”

The planned expansion would create more space for the music room, adding a dedicated game room and a 1,500-square-foot exercise room.

Construction alone would cost about $350,000, Harper said.

Willow Place, and Quilceda Community Services as a whole, is largely grant-funded, she said. The nonprofit plans to make up the construction cost through a combination of about $120,000 cash on hand, plus charitable grants and the sale of one of its residential properties.

The nonprofit also runs five residential homes with 24-hour supervision and has a thrift store in Arlington that provides another source of revenue.

Willow Place has four managers and four assistants who run two three-hour programs and a lunch five days a week, she said.

Some of the registrants stay all day.

One of those is Harper’s sister, Leslie Venables, 69, who has been living in one of the residences since the 1970s and coming to the day program since it opened.

Venables used to work on an assembly line, but after she stopped working in the early 2000s, she had no place to go during the day.

Senior centers, Harper said, are not a good match for people with development disabilities like her sister.

“They like to play killer bridge, and she likes to play Old Maid,” Harper said. “And she laughs uproariously when you’re the old maid.”

She pointed to the crowded room where people were eagerly coloring pictures.

“These guys would literally be vegging out at home if they didn’t have this,” she said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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