New Leaf finds a home
July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:34 PM
"A little more than six months ago, the managers of New Leaf were thinking they'd have to move. That's because the building the Oak Harbor-based community rehabilitation program had rented for the last five years was for sale and executive director Rhea Nelson doubted the non-profit agency could afford to buy it.It looked like it would be sold out from under us, Nelson said. Buying the building seemed like a dream because first of all, where would we get the down payment?Yet today, New Leaf owns its former rental, a three-story, 4,900-square-foot building on Fidalgo Avenue, and is in the process of remodelling it.And all it took was a local bank, a cowboy and a lot of community support.New Leaf has been helping people with and without disabilities to enter or return to the workplace since 1969. Starting with a handful of disabled employees and a $60,000 ground maintenance contract at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, New Leaf has grown to the point where it has more than 70 employees and holds three federal contracts at the air station worth almost $2 million. Its workers take care of NAS Whidbey's grounds, stock shelves in the commissary, warehouse and Exchange, and do janitorial work for the base.But as a non-profit, New Leaf has never had the money to buy its own place. Last November, Nelson learned the the former Square 1 building, its home for the last five years, was for sale for $375,000.A member of our board, Ferguson Condliff, went to InterWest Bank to see if there was any possibility of buying this building, Nelson said. And the beauty is, InterWest researched this and plugged us into sources.Interwest's senior vice president, Rich Engom, contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture and helped Condliff and New Leaf secure a $50,000 rural development community facility loan.Then New Leaf colleague Susan Milstein found out about another grant, available from the Taylor Tex Bishop Foundation.Bishop was a retired cowboy/policeman/cook and butcher who made a small fortune trucking cattle between Western Washington and John Day, Ore. In 1969 he set up the Taylor Bishop Foundation to provide grants to organizations that provide vocational services for people with disabilities. The maximum New Leaf could receive was $100,000. Trouble was, two other agencies had already applied. Nelson figured that at best, New Leaf might get one-third of the $100,000.They got it all.In the midst of these windfalls, New Leaf secured an additional $8,000 grant from Island Thrift to augment its computer systems and lab.The result was that by May 12, the non-profit went from shopping for a rental to making a $150,000 down payment on its own building.It's shocking how things fell together, Nelson said. Six months ago we were looking for a new home and today it's assured. In 31 years, it's the first time New Leaf's had a home, We think it's wonderful.The irony, Nelson added, is that New Leaf's mortgage payments are now lower than their old lease payments.New Leaf is using the extra cash to remodel the first floor to be ADA compliant, paint the entire building inside and out, put in new carpeting and enlarge and improve its computer lab.Now we're looking confidently at the future, Nelson said. We're talking about growth rather than survival. "