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Couples struggle to keep North Bend sisters together

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NORTH BEND - By now, sisters Jackie and Sandy Guthrie probably have been told they may be split up after their more than five decades together.

That wasn't the case last week when their caretakers were scrambling to figure out how to keep the two developmentally disabled women in the same home, or even in the same town. Jackie, 65, and Sandy, 54, have needed custodial care their entire lives and with a trust fund that has paid for their care for the past few years about to run out, it is looking as though circumstances could take them out of the Valley and apart from each other.

"We don't know what to do," said Julienne Engen, one of the sisters' caretakers.

Jackie and Sandy are the daughters of Wayne and Erma Guthrie of Snoqualmie. Wayne worked for years at Weyerhaeuser and Erma sold Avon. Both were known throughout the community, as were their three developmentally-disabled children: Jackie, Sandy and Bob.

One of the couples the Guthries befriended were Dick and Kris Kirby of Snoqualmie. Dick, along with Kris, taught in the Snoqualmie Valley School District and remembered seeing Sandy and Jackie at just about every Mount Si High School sporting event for years.

Another couple the Guthries came to know was Chris and Julienne Engen. Chris also worked at Weyerhaeuser and he would go on hunting trips with Wayne, often accompanied by Bob.

Realizing their children would outlive them, the Guthries planned ahead for their children's care. They set up a trust fund and asked the Kirbys and Engens to steward the money. It would be an awesome responsibility, but the Kirbys and Engens accepted and their promise became a reality when Erma and Wayne died in 1998 and 1999, respectively.

At first the plan was to keep the children in the house they'd grown up in, but the set up quickly fell apart. While the three were not in need of 24-hour-a-day care, they were in need of constant supervision that cost as much as 24-hour-a-day care. It also became apparent that Bob, who could be volatile, would need much more intensive care than he was getting.

The Kirbys and Engens decided to place Bob in an assisted living facility in Redmond, sold the Guthrie's house and looked for an apartment for Sandy and Jackie. The cost of care was still an issue, however, so the two couples considered other options.

Julienne discovered the Red Oak assisted-living facility in North Bend could take care of the sisters and so for the past four years, Jackie and Sandy have called it their home. The sisters could be together and still be close to the Kirbys and Engens, who they see often and spend holidays with.

Care was still very expensive. Kirby said it costs about $4,200 a month to keep the sisters in their current living arrangement. While the sisters receive $1,600 a month total from Social Security and some other private and personal money, the Kirbys and Engens started to see the end of the trust fund approaching this past year. Dick resolved to find a solution and has been in constant contact with the state Department of Health and Human Services. Julienne has been on a "roller coaster ride" figuring out what public money can and can't pay for. She has applied for private grants and has gone to area churches asking for help.

The best the couples can hope for is raising support that will keep the sisters at Red Oak. Julienne said she is willing to get the sisters in a one-bedroom unit or even a studio in order to keep them together. The one-bedroom unit costs $2,850 a month, and the studio costs $2,450, so there is still a significant amount of money to raise. While similar apartments may cost a lot less on the regular market, the sisters still need the constant care of a facility like Red Oak in order to be safe.

"They have minds like children," Julienne said.

The worst-case scenario is that the trust fund will run dry and the sisters will be turned over to the state for care. Dick said the state would like to keep the sisters together, but there are no guarantees and wherever they end up would be outside the Valley.

Julienne doesn't like the idea of having the two in a state-funded home. At Red Oak, they can play cards and get a neck massage. Sandy works part time at Twede's Cafe in North Bend. They have lived their whole lives by each other's side in the Valley.

Even though Jackie and Sandy may have been told of their situation, they may not fully know what the future brings. The Kirbys and Engens don't understand fully either, but they do know they are not the only people dealing with such a problem. Dick wondered what will become of people later in life who don't have health care. Julienne said she doesn't comprehend how society can turn its back on those who are the most vulnerable to illness.

"We have our priorities messed up," Julienne said. "We don't take care of the elderly."

* For information on how to help, call Julienne at (425) 888-2617 for long-term financial help, or Red Oak at (425) 888-7108 for short-term financial help.

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