New Leaf celebrates 40 years

New Leaf Employee James Hollett mops the Commissary floor.  - Jenny Manning/Whidbey News-Times
New Leaf Employee James Hollett mops the Commissary floor.
— image credit: Jenny Manning/Whidbey News-Times

James Hollett is known as “the blurr” to those who work at the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station Commissary. The 27-year-old earned the nickname for his quick pace while on the job. The Whidbey Island native stocks shelves, keeps the store clean and does whatever else is asked of him. And he does it with a smile.

“It’s great. I love it,” he said.

Hollett, and 111 others, are employed because of New Leaf, a nonprofit corporation established in 1969 by parents of adults with developmental disabilities. Eighty percent of New Leaf’s workforce have a physical, mental or sensory disability.

Not only is this October National Disability Employment Awareness Month, it’s also New Leaf’s 40th anniversary. In four decades, hundreds of small successes have amounted to huge nationwide change.

New Leaf began at a time when Washington state released about 800 institutionalized men and women. The institutional downsizing created an opportunity for people with disabilities to integrate into the nation’s workforce, and that’s where New Leaf’s founders came in.

Murray Anderson, whose daughter has downs syndrome, learned of the budding program from a friend. Not long after, Anderson found himself at the helm as executive director.

Working with the forest service was one of the toughest jobs in New Leaf’s beginning, Anderson said. It also proved to be one of the most rewarding.

“These guys never thought they could do much and here they were swinging axes,” he said.

Three years after Murray joined New Leaf, the program made history. In 1973, Cmdr. Roy Allen, public works officer at NAS Whidbey signed a $59,411 contract with the program for lawn maintenance; it was the first federal agreement to contract services from people with disabilities. Three additional contracts have been signed since.

The initial contract provided New Leaf employees with new trucks and equipment and twice the salary they made before, Murray said. New Leaf’s ability to pay a living-wage was a real achievement, he said.

“They may have limited abilities, but they’re great individuals,” said Murray.

Today’s New Leaf employees continue to receive living wages, as well as medical, dental and life insurance, a retirement plan, and vacation and holiday pay.

Current Executive Director, Rhea Nelson described New Leaf as taking the “dis” out of disability.

“We find what they’re able to do,” she said of New Leaf’s employees, who are involved in all phases of New Leaf’s operations, from direct labor to administrative positions.

New Leaf currently holds four federal contracts worth $5 million. The contracts include base-wide janitorial services, base-wide grounds maintenance, commissary shelf stocking and custodial services at NAS Whidbey and the Smokey Point commissary in Marysville.

After 40 years in the business of employing people with disabilities, New Leaf is still growing. Nelson said she anticipates that NAS Whidbey will sign another contract at the galley with New Leaf this spring, allowing the program to hire an additional 30 employees.

As for Hollett, he couldn’t hope for a better situation.

“Helping customers is the most rewarding job,” he said.

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