Laethan Wene likes who he is: someone who advocates for people like himself. Someone who may have a disability, but who more importantly has a job, friends, an active social schedule and a lot of stories to tell. A member of Northwest Center’s Board of Directors, Wene has a connection to the organization that goes back nearly 30 years. He was a pre-teen when he first met longtime board member Parul Houlahan. At the time, she was working for the Washington Protection and Advocacy System—an organization that began at Northwest Center as The Troubleshooters and is now known as Disability Rights Washington (DRW). “When I was 12 years old, when my mom was still here, we made a trip down to see Ms. Houlahan. So I’ve known her ever since I was a kid.” Houlahan helped Laethan’s mother find the services he needed as a child with a developmental disability who would soon enter high school—and later, the world.
Sadly, Wene lost his mother by the time he was a teenager. Still, he persevered. He calls his high school experience “great” with real enthusiasm. Home Economics was his favorite subject—something that would serve him well in the job he would go on to get at his local Arby’s. High school was also where he “got started in the political world,” he says. “They were looking for a representative to go to the student body meetings, so they selected me.”
Eventually, Wene became a member of the Washington State Disability council, serving with Governor Christine Gregoire, and has volunteered for political campaigns like that of Governor Jay Inslee (“Before he was governor, he was my congressman.”). He is still an active participant at Shoreline City Council meetings, though these days, serving on Northwest Center’s board takes up more of his time.
An Award-Winning Worker
Northwest Center Employment Services worked with Laethan in 1996 to land his job at Arby’s in Edmonds, where he still loves working today. “Going on 20 years,” he says. “I wash dishes, check the garbage, pick up trays, get the fries and all that. It’s fun. I meet people.”
His hard work and friendliness earned him the Employee of the Quarter award and the company’s coveted Red Hat award, “an internal recognition program for restaurant team members and managers who embody Arby's core values and go above and beyond to deliver our brand purpose of ‘Inspiring Smiles Through Delicious Experiences’ to our guests,” says Jason C. Collins of Arby’s Restaurant Group, Inc. Laethan was also honored by Northwest Center at the 2007 Golden Hearts Luncheon, receiving the Employment Achievement Award.
Laethan describes himself as “always on the go,” and over the years it’s led to a wide variety of experiences. One devastating and heroic event took place in 1998, when he was aboard the Metro bus that plunged from Seattle’s Aurora Bridge. Not only did Laethan survive the crash, he managed to run 12 blocks to a Safeway to call 911. Real Change News wrote this about the incident in 2009: “When the bus hit the ground, he watched the back door pop open. Then he heard two voices. The first, he says, belonged to the Lord. ‘He told me, “I'm not through with you yet.” He told me to crawl out the door.’ …The second voice said, ‘Go call 911.’”
Another deadly bus crash on the same bridge this past summer brought back painful memories for Laethan, and along with it renewed media interest—he appeared in stories on KOMO News and Q13Fox.
But Laethan doesn’t dwell on negative events for long. He’d rather talk about fun things, like how he excelled in Special Olympics in track, soccer, volleyball, basketball and cycling (he still volunteers at events). Or how his childhood babysitter was regional journalist Penny LeGate, “so after school I went over to Penny LeGate’s house.”
He’s especially excited to talk about the time he got a surprise visitor at work. “My friend Jay Halle, the team chaplain for the Mariners, said, ‘I have a surprise for you.’” Halle had brought along Dan Wilson, then a catcher for the team. “And I’m like, ‘WHAT?’’’ Laethan recalls.
Still a huge baseball fan, he was delighted to throw out the ceremonial first pitch for the summer 2015 Mariners game where staff, teachers, parents, kids and alumna of Northwest Center had gathered to celebrate its 50th anniversary. “It felt good,” he says with a grin. “Nervous? A little. I was excited. I was at work when they called [to ask if he’d throw out the pitch], and I was like, ‘What? YES!’”
An Invaluable Advocate
Laethan is invaluable to Northwest Center, says CEO Tom Everill. “He plays a tireless advocacy role on the board on behalf of the people we serve and reminds us continually why we’re here,” he says. “We can get off in the weeds. This is a complicated business. He keeps us focused on the work.”
“Northwest Center is a great place to be,” Wene says. “I feel safe here. I have friends here. They care about what goes on here. And I want the best for the people that we serve. That’s why I’m on the board.”
Everill and Wene have had many discussions over the years about dealing with change. It’s inevitable that people will move on from their jobs, and occasionally a departure will hit one or both of them hard. There was one particular shakeup that Everill describes as an exhausting, emotional day.
“I knew Laethan was close to [the people who were leaving]. I spent the entire day from 7 in the morning until 6 that night in fraught conversations with upset people. So I get home and go for a walk—and no CEO ever needed a walk more—and my phone buzzed, and Laethan had called. I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t have anything left. But I have to call him back.’ Then I listened to his message: ‘Hi Tom. It’s Laethan. I know how little you like change, so I’m just calling to see if you’re okay.’” Everill says it was just like the Northwest Center billboard: “Bet you thought you’d be the one helping me.”
And Laethan is all about helping others. He reaches out to friends and acquaintances who are hunting for jobs, often offering his Northwest Center business card and to put in a good word with potential employers. The most important thing for people with disabilities to know, he says, is that “they’re not alone in the world. There are people that think they’re good and okay. I just want the best for them.”
When he’s asked to name his greatest achievement, he says, “What I like about who I am is, I like to advocate for people with special needs. Like if they can’t speak for themselves. I’m there to help them succeed.” He pauses and says, “What I have accomplished is just being who I am.”
It’s more than enough.
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