"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Kathleen Sturkey, executive director of the Los Angeles Retarded Citizens' Foundation (LARC Ranch) in Saugus. Questions are paraphrased.
Signal: What is the mission of LARC Ranch?
Sturkey: To provide residential and day program services to developmentally disabled adults, and to give them a life that's with respect and dignity.
Signal: Where is LARC Ranch located?
Sturkey: It's located on 65 acres of land up on Bouquet (Canyon Road), above Vasquez Canyon on Bouquet. That's our main campus. We have thirteen 3,000-square-foot homes there. And on the property is an auditorium, and we have an inside gymnasium, and we have a school.
Signal: Do you have other locations?
Sturkey: We also have two day programs, one located on LARC Ranch and one located in Canyon Country. And I also have a beautiful HUD home located in Newhall, on Apple Street.
Signal: What function does the home in Newhall serve?
Sturkey: It is a six-bedroom home for individuals who are very high-functioning. It was actually the example of how we knew we could go from a dormitory-style setting to the residential homes now at LARC Ranch, on the property. It's an example of how people should live all in homes, not in dormitory settings, not in campus settings, but more home like settings, and that was our example that we knew we could convert our other property into homes.
Signal: Is that your ultimate goal? To have these folks living in homes rather than dormitories?
Sturkey: Oh, yes. Because it is the most normalized type of setting there is to live in. Everyone should live in a great home, and these are beautiful homes.
Signal: The property up Bouquet is out of Santa Clarita city limits; it's in the unincorporated county. Is this a government facility?
Sturkey: No. It is a nonprofit corporation. It's been out there for 45 years.
Signal: The name, Los Angeles Retarded Citizens 45 years ago it was probably one thing to use the word, "retarded," but is it correct to use the word "retarded" today?
Sturkey: We call them "developmentally disabled" adults, and we serve only adults, not children.
Signal: What is the age range?
Sturkey: We have a license from 18 to 59, and that's adults; we also have a license for the elderly, 60 and above. Our oldest resident there is 80 years old. So we provide purely residential services there. It is for them to come and live as normal a life as possible, where they live among their peers, they live in a community, they go to work, and on holidays just like everyone else does, or on special days like their birthdays, they visit their families and parents. But they live in their own community.
Signal: Are they free to come and go as they please throughout the day?
Sturkey: They are, as best they are able. We have some people who are able to be bus-trained, and the bus ends at that particular spot. But generally they are going to day programs, and they are being transported to their day programs. Many of them get on the bus and also go to Pleasantview Industries. Others are going to work, like Ralph's grocery store; we have individuals who work at Magic Mountain. They are a pretty busy group.
Signal: Tell us about Pleasantview Industries.
Sturkey: Pleasantview Industries is a rehab under the (California) Department of Rehabilitation. It is a sheltered workshop. It employs many of our people to work there, also, in addition to our two day programs.
Signal: What kind of tasks do they do?
Sturkey: They work on what is called piecework. They work on contract work at Pleasantview, and they get paid a piecework rate. And it's a wonderful place. It really is.
Signal: How do people come to you? How are they identified? There are varying degrees of being developmentally disabled, right?
Sturkey: Correct. They are identified through what's called (there are) 21 Regional Centers in California, and we're under the North L.A. County Regional Center. The case workers will have a development packet of individuals, and when we have vacancies, we're always letting them know, and we have to be able to match their needs in order to be funded for that individual to live at LARC Ranch.
There are other people with much greater needs, or (who) may need nursing care or may need greater staffing care than we are able to provide. We have a criteria, and most of our people are referred to us through the Regional Center.
Signal: Is everybody who comes to you somebody for whom you are able to find a job?
Sturkey: No, not necessarily. But they are able to take care of most of their daily tasks, their own personal tasks. They can be trained, and we try to maintain whatever they have learned throughout their lives. But no, not everyone can go work in a job, and that's why we have the ADC program at LARC Ranch, which takes care of people and helps them and provides services to them.
Signal: ADC is adult day care?
Sturkey: Adult day care. But it's more to maintain their present skill levels, and they are more behaviorally physically challenged. We are also the largest facility serving the developmentally disabled in the Santa Clarita Valley. And as it grows, so do we. We are right now in the process of starting a third day program, because our DTAC (Day Training Activity Center) program at LARC Industries in Canyon Country is full.
Signal: The people who come to you do they or their families have to pay their own way?
Sturkey: We do have a few private-pay individuals, but primarily the state; there's Social Security it's SSI and (there is matching) funds from the Regional Center, and that pays for their room and board, so to speak. But on the other hand, that's about 80 percent of what takes care of the ranch; the other 20 percent, we do fund-raising for.
Signal: Do you have any fund-raisers coming up?
Sturkey: No, we just had one in September. We also seek out grants, and we have a wonderful grant writer. That's pretty much what keeps us going along, because you also have to maintain the facilities, the homes, the 65 acres of land; all of that has to be taken care of, to keep them happy.
Signal: How many people do you serve right now?
Sturkey: We are licensed for 103; right now we have 100 individuals living there, and also six living at the HUD home on Apple Street. But we also serve people who live at home still, and come to our day programs. So that is also 20 percent of our day programs.
Signal: Over and above the 100?
Signal: How fast are you growing? How many people were you serving 10 years ago?
Sturkey: Oh, I would say we were serving about 70-some, about 10 years ago. We have noticed, as the valley is growing, they are bringing in their own individual children who may have special needs, and once they have graduated, they are looking at either day programs for them or residential care. But LARC Ranch is such a special place, and because of the way it is built, and because of the way it looks, it's just a fantastic neighborhood.
Also, for some reason, it is being looked at all over the country as the way people should be living. We have had people come to live with us as far as from Chicago, New York, Florida; we have a married couple who have come from San Diego. So it is really an exemplary place. And yet it is its own little quiet place. Unless you have special-needs family or you have a member whom you know a lot of people don't know about LARC Ranch, even though it's been here a long time.
Signal: So it's not just people from the SCV or, for that matter, from California whom you serve; can anybody throughout the nation apply?
Sturkey: They can apply, and they have to first live there private-pay, and then they apply to become invested in the Regional Center system, which then takes over the funding for them.
But California is a wonderful place for developmentally disabled people to live. It has a lot of even from early on, when they are babies, it has programs to help parents, to help deal with it.
You see, years ago, if you had been a special-needs child, your parents would have been told to put you into a institution. And the parents who bought the land in LARC Ranch wanted more for their children. They wanted them to be educated, and they did not yet have their civil rights. They didn't have schooling for them. They didn't have the right to go to school. So when they bought this land of 65 acres for $65,000 at that time, 45 years ago, they began a school and a residential program. They were really futuristic-thinking because they wanted their children to have a better life.
And yes, their children are trainable. They can go to work, some of them; they can go to a day program; they're social. They are people. It's really, really cool to see them. They are wonderful people.
Signal: Who were these people 45 years ago who started LARC Ranch?
Sturkey: They were parents. They were a group of parents who came out of Los Angeles. Some of them are still on our board; or their siblings or their children are also serving. Our board is made up mostly of family members who are very savvy people, and they are the greatest cheerleaders of their own children. But they were parents.
Signal: So way back then, they formed a nonprofit organization?
Sturkey: They sure did.
Signal: Who is on your board today? What kind of people are calling the shots?
Sturkey: We have doctors, lawyers; we have some very special names (whose) children are special-needs children. Or just family members who are teachers, or people who are everyday people here in California.
The one thing I have noted, too, when I look at our honor wall the people who have built this newest version of LARC Ranch was that anyone, no matter what your economic status, can be touched by having a special-needs child. It knows no borders. But we have been very blessed. We have very, very wonderful people who work for us as board members.
Signal: If people come from far and wide, how many "indigenous" Santa Clarita Valley people have come to you?
Sturkey: I would say about depending on the residential program, I would say about 10 percent, and a greater amount in the day programs.
What happens in high school, once they graduate from high school they can go to high school until they are 21 (or) 22 some children come out with an expectation that they are going to get a job. But the job market out here is tough. And once they find they can't get a job, they want to do something, because like everyone else, they want to be productive. So they start looking at day programs. Many people come to our day programs. And also Pleasantview. We just happen to be the largest that serves the developmental disabled.
Signal: While they're still children, where do developmentally disabled kids typically live? At home with their parents?
Sturkey: Nowadays, yes. There used to be a time when children were institutionalized from the time they were little people. They stayed in institutions they were called children's group homes and later they looked at residential programs, even large institutions that were they did look like big hospitals, at one time. That was where they were coming from at that time.
Little by little, and as parents were more educated, as doctors were more educated, as everything was more education is what made a difference. People began to understand that they could put their children in school. So now, more and more of them live at home, and more of them go through their regular schools in special-needs classes, and then they come out.
Signal: And then they realize how difficult it is to get a job on their own. You say California is a good place and has a lot of services for developmentally disabled people which is interesting, considering that Gov. Ronald Reagan cut the budget for mentally ill services.
Sturkey: He sure did.
Signal: Has there been a complete turnaround? What is the state doing now that's so good for the developmentally disabled?
Sturkey: If you're a parent who comes to a Regional Center, and you suddenly realize that you expected to have a child who had no special needs, and suddenly you are presented with this child who may not walk, may not talk, maybe is autistic there's a variety of types of problems this child might have. When you go to a Regional Center there is training for the parent; there is counseling for the parent from the very beginning; and also training with the child so that you will learn to interact and work with your child. The more that they interact and work together, through love and understanding of this child, and through all the education that these counselors put into helping you with your child, you become a better parent. And the children, they thrive.
Signal: What organization runs the Regional Center?
Sturkey: It's the North L.A. County Regional Center; they are part of the state. That's state funded, but we're not.
Signal: What kind of interaction does LARC Ranch have with the community of the Santa Clarita Valley?
Sturkey: Well, (our clients) are consumers. They are out there in the malls and shopping all the time. They have gone to school out here. They are your neighbors. They have their own neighborhood. They're very special people. They want you to come to see them and know them as individuals who are just like all the rest of us they are people, and then they have some special needs. Because really, all of us have special needs of some kind.
Signal: What kind of support does the community give to LARC Ranch?
Sturkey: We have volunteer services many people come and volunteer and help us with our individuals. We are also very invested in Special Olympics. Eighty percent of our people participate in Special Olympics year-round, and they come and practice on our property. We have the park; we have a indoor pool and the gymnasium; so they are very involved in that way, also. You see a lot of them in Special Olympics.
But a lot of volunteerism occurs, especially now, during the holidays, and as well, we also interact with a lot of the nonprofits out here and help them by coming to LARC Ranch, getting to know our people, and also using our facilities.
Signal: If somebody wanted to help, what would they do?
Sturkey: They would help with the Special Olympics practices year Śround; they can go into the houses and help with reading and writing; just visiting. Many people come to take them to church or synagogue. The Girl Scouts come, the Boy Scouts come, the Assistance League comes and gives them a dance and is very involved; we love them. That kind of thing.
Signal: You have been involved in the local Nonprofit Leaders Council. What's that about?
Sturkey: It's wonderful. It's just about getting together with other executive directors and interacting with them, who are other nonprofit individuals.
A lot of businesses don't think of us as a business. They just think of us as charity with our hands out all the time. And yet, we are businesses. We hire people. We work with all the personnel issues. We are concerned with health insurance, workers comp, and we can all talk about these issues.
Those of us who have been in the business for a while can mentor others and encourage others. We may not all support the same type of nonprofit issue, but we are nonprofits, and we have a lot of similar things to talk about.
Signal: Do you have examples of how nonprofits have helped each other?
Sturkey: Well, particularly with LARC Ranch because we have this indoor swimming pool, the Girl Scouts have used it for girls who cannot afford to pay for swimming lessons. We have given the pool free to them, and they get free lessons to help Girl Scouts who never before would be able to swim.
Again, we have a park, we have a indoor pool, gymnasium we offer these facilities to practices for Special Olympics. We have also had nonprofits come, and I have conference rooms and I have the auditorium and what have you. We have these outer buildings that we allow people to use. Nonprofits, I allow them they're small-fee or free, depending on their economic status.
Signal: How many people does LARC Ranch employ?
Sturkey: About 80 full-time, and about a total of 90. We have to give 24-hour service to our people, seven days a week.
Signal: What goes on at the Canyon Country facility?
Sturkey: That is LARC Industries, and that is another day program that provides vocational services it's called "community integration services" to the adults who attend there. There is a little bit of piecework, contract work, that they do there.
Signal: Sort of like Pleasantview Industries.
Sturkey: Right. But we're not Pleasantview Industries. That is a pure, sheltered workshop, and we are not "pure" in that sense. We dabble in a lot of different things.
Signal: You say that program is maxed out; what is on the horizon for LARC Ranch?
Sturkey: We're looking to create a third program, to pull from that program of individuals who are senior-like but not ready to retire, and they are not really ready to go to our (adult day care) program which is on the property. (It) will still provide them a lot of community integration, cooking classes, more senior-like activities; they're kind of ready to retire but they're not ready to not do anything at all. That will make some openings for us at our LARC Industries. We're in the licensing and the vendoring of that program as I talk right now. Maybe it'll be open in the spring.
At some point, if LARC Industries continues to grow as it is now it's maxed at 65 we'll have to seek another building and open it up to a larger population.
Signal: How did you get involved in LARC Ranch?
Sturkey: Well, I was an at-home mom with an at-home business, and bringing up my four children, (who) were at home, and it was just time to get out there and do something else.
I started as a direct-line worker at my (adult day care) program on the property at LARC Ranch. Within a few months I was promoted to supervisor, and about a year later I was promoted to administrative assistant. I was groomed, basically, by my mentor, Sonny Ash, who was then the executive director, to become the executive director. So I'm sort of home-grown for LARC Ranch, so to speak.
Signal: How long have you been with the business?
Sturkey: Over 13 years.
Signal: How long have you been in the SCV?
Sturkey: Thirty-five years.
Signal: What's your educational background? Is some special credentialing required to do what you do?
Sturkey: College, mostly. But the odd thing is, I was an English major, so a lot of what I've learned, and a lot of the education you have to have continuing education to work at LARC Ranch is administrative credentials. It has to be ongoing training that fits the credential. So even though I have the English-certification background, I have to have certification as an administrator. So every two years, I have to have 70 continuing education units for that, and I have to keep what we call a dual diagnosis. I have a license and certification for the elderly, and a certification for adults. So that keeps me pretty busy.
Signal: Do you have credentialed people who provide medical services and that sort of thing?
Sturkey: No, we're not a medical we don't have that. People who apply at LARC Ranch will generally have a high school diploma; they have a great desire to work with people with special needs. It's a calling. It's not just something that everyone wants to do. Then we have to educate them. They have to have 70 units of direct support professional training, and they have to have (8 to 10 continuing education) units every year, and for state training they have to be fingerprinted. There's a criteria that's put down through the Regional Centers, through Title 17 and 21, of how these people who work for us will have to have every year.
Signal: Where do your responsibilities stop and the family's responsibilities start?
Sturkey: Actually, it's like living away from family. And they're living in their own home. We always interact with the families, but we're encouraging them to be adults away from home, and live as adults in as normal a situation as they can.
Signal: So there's not a lot of reliance on the family to provide support for that person.
Sturkey: No, not at all. It's all staff-run.
Signal: What do you want to leave us with?
Sturkey: People who don't know about LARC Ranch please come and see us. We do tours of the ranch. When you see the beauty of LARC Ranch and you see the people, you really get what LARC Ranch is about. Because it is a magnificent place to see people live like everybody else should be living: in dignity and respect.
Signal: You open your doors to the public?
Sturkey: We do, and people call me at 296-8636, ext. 232, and we set up tours. We tell them to dress comfortably and wear tennis shoes. We're on 65 acres of land. We try not to walk them all over it, but at least we ask them to come out and see us if they like.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.