PENINSULA PROFILE: She creates a community for developmentally disabled

By Diane Urbani de la Paz
Peninsula Daily News

SEQUIM — When Dorothy Skerbeck gave birth to her 12th child in 1961, she didn’t know where to turn for support.

This child, Thomas, was born with Down syndrome, and would not develop the same way that his brothers and sisters did.

At first, Skerbeck, who lived in Port Angeles with her husband, Dr. Frank Skerbeck, was at a loss.

“I couldn’t go out in public,” she remembers, “because I would cry.”

The Washington Association for Retarded Citizens, as it was then called, phoned to invite her to meetings. So Skerbeck got over her tears, went to a meeting and heard stories about other young people with developmental disabilities. They were sometimes picked up by police and put in jail, she heard, because nobody knew what to do for them.

“There was nothing in the way of services,” she recalls.

The day after this ARC meeting, she called the man she’d met there and asked, “Why hasn’t anybody done anything?”

His response: “Stay on the phone.”

Soon after that conversation, a parents’ group formed. It had a president: Dottie Skerbeck.

So began a long journey, a journey that has taken Skerbeck through the raising of 15 children, 52 years of marriage and the birth of one of the Olympic Peninsula’s first organizations to serve people with disabilities.

Earlier this year, Skerbeck was honored with a lifetime membership on the board of CCH Individualized Support Services, the new name for the agency she helped establish. And as she turns 90 at the end of this month, Skerbeck has much to celebrate.

Thomas, her little boy, is now 52 years old and working at Pacific Office Equipment.

He lives at the Christine Apartments in Port Angeles, while his mother and several of his siblings still live nearby.

Back when he was a toddler, though, Skerbeck helped to build, from the ground up, a support network for people with developmental disabilities. She was among the parents who started Clallam County Day Training, the preschool that eventually became First Step Family Support Center.

First Step has since changed its focus. In the 1990s, the Port Angeles School District began providing services to developmentally disabled children, said First Step Executive Director Nita Lynn.

But Skerbeck “was one of the original founders of the organization,” Lynn said.

Skerbeck, who moved with her family to Port Angeles in the mid-1950s, also cofounded Clallam County Hostelries, aka CCH, in 1969. CCH included a “sheltered workshop,” where workers with developmental disabilities manufactured garden stakes and other products.

“It takes a lot of support,” Skerbeck says, to run such workshops. But she and other parents wanted an alternative to large, state-run institutions. They wanted people with disabilities to be part of their own community.

The first CCH program was the Outlook Group Home in Port Angeles, where residents had 24-hour support. Then, in 1972, the agency moved to a new house, the Hazel Street Group Home, a place designed for 12 developmentally disabled residents.

CCH kept expanding and changed its name in 2011 to CCH Individualized Support Services. According to the website, www.CCHiss.org, the name reflects the organization’s commitment to tailoring services to each client, rather than trying to fit the person into a program. The staff includes 55 instructional and support people and six house supervisors, the website notes.

Skerbeck brought a variety of life experiences to Port Angeles some 60 years ago. She began her career as a student at a teachers college in Superior, Wis.; she started there in 1940 and was supposed to graduate in ’44, but World War II intervened.

Skerbeck married Frank, a medical student, and the young couple proceeded to move around the country: to Spooner, Wis., and to St. Louis, Mo. Dorothy, who had by this time finished her Bachelor of Science in biology, was a substitute teacher there. The Skerbecks had no car, though, and she remembers how hard it was to navigate the city.

Frank had come through the Strait of Juan de Fuca on an Army troop ship — he served in both World War II and the Korean conflict — and “was quite taken with Port Angeles,” Dorothy remembers.

By the time he was finishing his residency at Virginia Mason in Seattle, “he would look over at the Olympic Mountains” and dream of living beneath them.

By 1955, the Skerbecks had moved to Port Angeles to raise their family. And it’s quite a family, all graduates of Queen of Angels Catholic School: Kathleen is the eldest, in her early 60s now; then came Sharron, Marilyn, Bobbie, Patricia, Carole, Franz, Leon, Terese, Ben, Matthew, Thomas, Damian, Andy and Eric, their adopted son.

Three of the Skerbeck children are deceased: Franz, Marilyn and Eric. And Dorothy lost her husband to cancer in 1996, after more than half a century of marriage. She does not talk about these losses.

When asked how she likes to spend her time, however, she speaks of her 12 surviving children, her 27 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren — with “more coming” — and her flock of friends. One is Maura Oakes, longtime member of the CCH board of directors. Oakes is married to retired physician Roger Oakes; the couple met Frank and Dorothy Skerbeck at Queen of Angels.

Maura Oakes remembers how good her friend Dottie was at bringing people together around her cause.

And yes, “I was highly motivated,” Skerbeck says. But she refuses to take much credit. The staff people and the parents made CCH what it is, she believes. It takes abundant initiative and compassion, Skerbeck says, to keep people with disabilities employed and living in the community.

“The people who have worked with us over all these years,” Skerbeck adds, “are loyal, hard-working and inspired people. They are a very important part of the whole picture.”

As CCH developed, “I just conducted meetings,” Skerbeck says.

She also had a reputation for recruiting board members.

“I don’t think I’m aggressive,” she says, smiling. “I’m successful.”

Skerbeck would be in a church group or some other gathering, and find herself a new volunteer.

“That was just a miraculous thing,” she says, “when I would be in a group, and I would find a new board member.”

Viola Nixon is one of Skerbeck’s longtime friends and, naturally, a member of the CCH board.

Skerbeck “is very aware that some people suffer a lot. And she wants to do something about it,” she said.

“But she’s not a long-faced person,” Nixon added. “She enjoys herself.”

Skerbeck’s daughter Bobbie Baldwin can attest to that. She recalled that when the Olympic Discovery Trail was still a fairly new thing, her mother pedaled her bicycle, from her home on the bluff east of Port Angeles, all the way into town for her Kiwanis Club meeting. She was 80 years old at the time.

Baldwin, a nurse who works at Olympic Medical Center, remembers asking her mother what kind of work she should get into. The response: “something where you can do something good for other people.”

Skerbeck also taught her children, by example, to have “a big, generous world view,” Baldwin said. This includes a belief in the community’s role in caring for its vulnerable members.

Skerbeck lives at the Lodge in Sequim now, though she doesn’t sit home much. The numerous members of her extended family, with their visits and activities, make her the envy of the residents. June will be another busy month, with her 90th birthday party planned for when all of her children can be in town, and with the annual Lake Quinault Rain Forest Bike Ride on the 23rd.

“Every year, we gather for that,” Skerbeck says. “We started out camping. Now, we go to the lodge,” while the bicyclists in the family pedal the 33 miles around the lake to benefit for the Quinault Cancer Fund.

For the ride, “we have had all variations of weather,” she adds.

Which could be said about Skerbeck’s life as a mother, wife and indefatigable volunteer. She credits her children for taking care of one another while she was working to establish CCH.

“Having survived their birth, their training and their growing up,” she says, “I can’t imagine a more satisfying life.”

Last modified: May 18. 2013 6:27PM
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