Ride of passage: Life Enrichment Options raising Snoqualmie profile with first-ever Challenge Day Race | Slideshow

Helmeted, and checking out the assembled race cars on Snoqualmie Parkway, Hunter, 9, of Fall City, tells her friend Scott that she’s ready to go fast.

Hunter was born with Down’s Syndrome, but that’s never held her back. Scott, a family friend, takes her on ATV rides in the Oregon dunes, and Hunter loves it.

“She likes to do things her own way and not have anybody hold her down,” says mom Dani Stellen.

Today, she’s all set for a different kind of ride: The first ever Snoqualmie Challenge Day Race, a derby-car ride down Snoqualmie Parkway.

Life Enrichment Options and Snoqualmie Valley Rotary hosted the event, which has been held in other Eastside communities for years, and is, for families like Hunter’s, a rite of passage.

“This is our first time,” said Dani, her mother. “We’re very excited, but she is thrilled!”

That day of fun was the first big event that Life Enrichment Options, or LEO, has hosted in the Valley, and one that LEO board members hope to build on, soon.

Fun is actually a sort of mission for the 22-year-old non-profit organization, explains Snoqualmie resident Nancy Whitaker, who is president of the LEO board of directors.

The Challenge Day race, she said, connects children with their “typically developing peers,” and helps to publicize LEO’s work to the community, “but most importantly it offers children who don’t have all that much to do in the community a chance to have fun,” she said.

“LEO helps families get their kids ready to be more self-sufficient and independent,” said President Nancy Whitaker. “This is one of those first steps.

“Most of our guys are with mom and dad, all the time. For some of the kids, this is the first time they’ve ever done something on their own,” she added. “Flying down the hill without mom and dad holding their hand—mom and dad are always up here,” looking on with excitement. “It’s those first steps to letting people do things on their own.”

Developmentally disabled children are each paired with a driver, who suffers no disabilities and works the car’s steering and brakes. As “co-drivers” the less-able children get steering wheels, but don’t actually control any movement. The race day included awards for everyone afterward and a lunch.

Most fun ever

Twenty-six children turned out for the first Challenge Day: That’s great for a first year, said LEO board member Becky Kitz.

“She’s ready,” said mom Ormezinda Maki, who brought daughter Iolanda, a veteran of the LEO derby held in Issaquah for some years. “She loves this.”

Iolanda was up at 6:30 a.m., ready to roll, rain or shine.

Typically developing children are just as excited.

“That was the most fun ever,” ‘driver’ Lauren Toft of Snoqualmie said of her run down the Parkway.

“It gives us an opportunity for something she would probably not be able to do,” Ormezinda said. “The smile on their faces when they’re done is irreplaceable… I’ve got my camera on my phone ready.”

It’s all in line with LEO’s stated mission of “Providing a quality life for individuals with developmental disabilities,” and with the LEO board’s decision to expand the Issaquah-based program’s offerings into the Valley.

“The board of directors has made a commitment that our next home will be in the Snoqualmie/North Bend area,” said Whitaker.

LEO has built three adult-family homes in the Issaquah area, where up to five developmentally-disabled adults and their care-givers live and share responsibilities. Providing supportive housing is one of the main areas of focus.

“We work to support and advocate for adults with developmental disabilities around the areas of housing, employment, recreation and education so they can reach their life goals and participate fully in the community,” Whitaker said.

They board chose the Valley as its next community, she added, because they saw a need.

“If you go west towards Bellevue and Kirkland, there are really lots of options, but there are very few out here,” Whitaker said.

State programs are available for developmentally-disabled adults, but the adults have to go where the openings are, no matter how far away they are, and “there’s 20 on the waitlist right now,” said Whitaker.

“The founders wanted a place that their children would be able to live independently in their own home community…this is our way to help these kids  live in their home communities, where people know them, and where they have friends,” said Whitaker.

A Snoqualmie Valley adult-family home is still a distant prospect for now, though. Although LEO probably has enough money to buy a property, Whitaker said, it doesn’t have enough for construction costs, too.

“All of the homes are debt-free, and that’s the goal,” she said. “We raise the money, and then we build the house.”

LEO’s funding typically comes from a biannual luncheon event and a mail campaign on alternating years.

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