Roanoke nonprofit becomes home for those with disabilities, changing lives one smile at a time

‘No matter where you are in life, there is something this organization can help you with’

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Photo by Lisa Crowder

A group photo of members of Katie's Place from the Roanoke and Lynchburg locations at a park in Lynchburg.

ROANOKE, Va. – Located in Southwest Roanoke, Katie’s Place is a nonprofit community day program that serves adults with various unique learning challenges.

Members at Katie’s Place (KP) are taught how to develop social skills and exercise lifestyle activities like cooking, cleaning, gardening, community outings and more.

Upon entering KP, you will be greeted with a celebratory toast and told that anyone who walks through their door should feel at home. The organization has one message: it is okay to be perfectly imperfect.

A vision turned into a dream with a mission

Katie’s Place was originally started by a group of parents who had a vision of having a farm where their children with disabilities could live, work, learn job skills and develop relationships and friendships.

Bonnie Whitlock, one of the original founders of the program, named the organization after her daughter, Katie, who also had a disability but passed away.

The organization evolved into an all-inclusive, community-based program and was later taken in by St. Vincent’s Home Services (SVH), which offers a wide variety of family assistance programs and educational opportunities.

Angie Leonard, CEO at SVH, said the program goes beyond helping people with disabilities feel like they can carry out ordinary life experiences.

Leonard, who is also the former executive director of SVH Blue Ridge Autism and Achievement Center, has a son with autism who advanced out of school programs and needed an adult program.

“There was a need for full life experiences for adults with disabilities, so KP was an existing program we could evolve, and it has grown by 170%,” said Leonard with a smile.

Leonard and other parents wanted to help those adults develop relationships with everyone, regardless if they had a disability or not. The purpose of this, she explained, is to help develop independent living at any stage of their lives.

There is no “I” in team

Zoe Paxton, the program lead at KP, said one of the core fundamentals of the program is to encourage group collaboration and promote choice.

“They voice what they want to do even if they do not have the verbal skills to do it. So, we figure out what they want to do,” said Paxton, who also worked at SVH for five years as a behavioral tech at the private day school before working at KP.

Painting their nails, going to Zumba, playing bingo, learning how to spend and budget money, volunteering at the Rescue Mission and taking a trolley through the Roanoke area are just some of the activities that the members get to do.

With the help of each member’s family, the activities are diversified and specific to their interests and goals, whether it be to build social skills, manage money or practice health and safety, said Paxton.

“Mama, KP tomorrow?”

A photo of Lisa Crowder, an employee at Katie's Place, with her son Shannon (Photo by Lisa Crowder)

Lisa Crowder, an employee and part of the original team of KP, also shared how the program has been a home to her and to her son, Shannon, who was best friends with Katie.

Crowder explained that one of the first things Shannon asks before going to bed and waking up in the morning is, “Mama, KP tomorrow?” or “Mama, KP day?”

Since Shannon joined KP, Crowder said she has seen her son grow to socialize and build instant relationships with his friends and the community.

“If you ask him, he will say it’s family and if someone is missing, he will ask about them and cares deeply for them and his staff. Once you are his friend, you are friends for life,” said Crowder.

While looking out of her office, hearing laughter and seeing the joy of the members playing, Crowder expressed how blessed she was to have this job.

“I know Katie would have loved the program here if she got the chance to see it,” Crowder said.

To learn more about the program and how you can volunteer, check out the Katie’s Place Facebook page and stop by for a visit.