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Iditarod racer's goal shifts to home

Margaret BaumanThe Cordova Times
Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race veteran Lynda Plettner runs a 20-acre facility to house developmentally disabled Alaskans at Big Lake.

BIG LAKE -- An Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race veteran who spent years tempering herself and her huskies for the long, hard trail to Nome has turned her energies to a new challenge: providing a healthy alternative home for adults with developmental disabilities.

Welcome to the Big Lake Country Club, a 20-acre spread where Lynda Plettner and her staff are licensed to house and care for up to 11 clients. The acreage also accommodates Plettner's Sled Dog Kennel and Tours, two horses, 25 sled dogs, two poodles, two parakeets and one litter of puppies.

Plettner, a small, energetic, self-made businesswoman, starts her day at 4 a.m., when the night staff goes home. Hours later she's still going strong, overseeing the myriad tasks of keeping clients happy, healthy and safe, while tending to the business side of things.

Statewide, the demand for housing and caregiving for the developmentally disabled vastly outweighs the supply, said Rebecca Hilgendorf, acting director of senior and disabilities services for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. As of Oct. 15, 933 individuals were registered for a variety of services. State officials said the average cost of services requested per individual in fiscal 2008 for developmentally disabled waivers was $93,000.

Cindy Farrens of the state Office of Public Advocacy in Palmer said Plettner "is an important part of the continuum of care we provide for our clients. She has been willing to take clients with very challenging behaviors.

"She gives them a sense of accomplishment, positive reinforcement. She creates a very warm and congenial environment for a wide variety of individuals with a wide variety of disabilities. She has a very consistent staff that follows through with stuff that needs to be done. I have seen great strides in the abilities of people in my care."

Phil Allison, a supervisor at Hope Cottage, called Big Lake Country Club unique:

"She's got a real way of understanding and working with people with disabilities and she seems to get an understanding and develop relationships quickly. I am amazed she is able to handle as many people as she does."

Ron Adler, chief operating officer of Alaska Psychiatric Institute, also sang Plettner's praises.

"The patients we have placed out there are very happy," he said. "Plettner has created a lifestyle around her passion, which is mushing. There are very few neighbors out there. It is sufficient, it is safe and it lacks the stimulation overload that you find in urban areas, and I do think that makes a difference with some people.

"What Lynda offers is something we need more of," he said.

HELP JUST KNOCKED

Plettner's entry into this business happened quite accidentally more than 10 years ago, when a man with developmental disabilities knocked on the door of her kennel off Mile 53.2 Parks Highway and asked if he could be a volunteer.

"He wanted to help with the dogs and none of the other kennels would let him help," said Plettner, who welcomed volunteers for the kennel every Saturday. "I said fine. He could help with the dogs. He came every Saturday."

A year later, the man lost his place in an assisted-living home and Plettner offered him free room and board. He became part of the eclectic Plettner household. Plettner received not a dime from the state for his care.

"Later I realized it would be nice if there were other clients there he could interact with -- not that he didn't interact with all of us," she said.

Within a couple of years, Plettner got licensed to accommodate three adults with developmental disabilities. She added on to the bunkhouse on the grounds and got it licensed. From 2000 to 2003, she ran a three-client home with her spouse. Single again in 2006, she licensed as the Big Lake Country Club and started over, expanding to a five-bed home. The next year she added two more homes with three beds each and now has room for a total of 11 clients in six buildings.

Her current clients, who are developmentally disabled, mentally ill or both, are males ranging in age from 18 to 60. Plettner said she will eventually open another home, on another piece of property, to accommodate female clients, but the current facility will remain for males only.

For those in residence, the atmosphere is family, rather than institutionally, oriented.

Each man has his own room, complete with color television, cable connections, a refrigerator and microwave oven. Some also have DVD players. Clients have access to a game room in the basement of the five-bed home that includes a 42-inch television, X-Box and other entertainment amenities, including rented first-run movies.

To encourage physical fitness, Plettner provides each client with cross-country skis, membership in the Alaska Club, a basketball hoop in the yard and bicycles as well as the tools to work on them.

Each client gets a library card for the local library, and can go with staff to the local bank in Big Lake every week to cash checks.

"I want them to be part of the community," she said.

Clients are also provided with a watch and a cell phone.

"I don't want them going anywhere without a cell phone," said Plettner, whose clients occasionally take jobs for pay in the area or go out shopping on their own.

How is the Big Lake Country Club different from other living facilities for the developmentally disabled?

"Well, we do an awful lot with them," she said. "We are on a 20-acre parcel in the wilderness. We are secluded, so we have to spend more time interacting, because there is less around to entertain ourselves. It makes a nice family grouping; everybody looks out for each other. It's pretty neat to watch how they take care of each other. One guy has physical issues and they help him in and out of the car. I didn't ask them to. They just do it.

"If we are cooking, they are cooking. If the staff is cleaning, they are cleaning. ... It is more time-consuming and labor-intensive to have them help, but from 1998 on, I did it with client participation. If it wasn't going to be all about the clients, I wasn't going to do it."

'A LOT OF INDEPENDENCE'

A typical day for Plettner begins at 4 a.m. "That gives me three hours before the morning staff arrives to have coffee, take a bath and start on the computer work, plus the client files and forms and other documents to make the place run better."

Once the day staff arrives, everyone's up. Coffee is ready at 7 a.m. and breakfast, in two shifts in the dining area, is from 8 to 9 a.m. Clients also get their daily medications.

Room checks are right after lunch. Staff members check to be sure clients have brushed their teeth, put on clean clothes and cleaned up their rooms.

"We have total cleaning of each room once a week, which is also their laundry day," Plettner said. "We are trying to set up a routine, because routines are good."

After room checks, clients can visit the Big Lake Country Club store to purchase a variety of healthy snacks and other items they have earned with tokens given as a reward for everything from keeping rooms clean to helping with chores.

"There's a lot of independence to living here," she said. "I really do keep a pretty tight rein on them, but they have their own rooms and they come to breakfast. I don't call them. If they are late to breakfast, they lose their cable TV for 24 hours."

Plettner, who can run a bulldozer, a backhoe, a chain saw and a lot of other equipment, designed and built the facility from the ground up, first as a commercial kennel and then for current needs.

"There is more need," she said. "I could build 10 more homes and fill them."

Her advice to others who are considering opening a home for the developmentally disabled is to first volunteer or find employment in an existing facility to find their niche.

"You have to be really devoted to it," she said. "It's a full-time job. You have to like helping people's quality of life being improved, and you have to feel good doing it."


By MARGARET BAUMAN
Alaska Journal of Commerce