The Story of My
Life and People First of Washington
By Donna Lowary
deepest appreciation and gratitude to
the members and advisors who walked this journey with me.
When I was growing up in Palouse, Washington, I never knew about people with
intellectual, developmental, or physical disabilities. I’m not sure If people didn’t want to live in
this rural community or if people with different abilities were shipped off to Pullman with more
resources for their education or to one of the state’s institutions.
The first person I met was through a swimming class for youth in a group
home I was asked to help with. It was my sophomore year at WSU and I was scared because of my
ignorance. This young man with Down Syndrome was so trusting and eager and I realized I had so much to
learn. I changed my major from Microbiology to Therapeutic Recreation and have been so grateful I did.
I volunteered my junior year in Clarkston with the County Recreation
Department—most of the participants had recently been moved out of Lakeland Village, a major
institution in eastern Washington. My senior year at WSU found me doing my internship in Colfax at St.
Ignatius Manor, a boarding home for people who had intellectual, developmental disabilities or mental
health challenges. This facility was once the local hospital. I held many of my activities in what
once was the emergency room.
After graduation, I had another huge learning curve as I spent 4 months at a
group home for children. I was 22 and was not ready to be a “parent” of young people with different
abilities that I had no clue on how to support.
I was recruited then to direct the recreation program for Asotin-Garfield
Developmental Disabilities Services—the same program I volunteered for a couple of years earlier. From
this position I was able to support the Clarkston Chapter of People First (one of the first chapters
in Eastern Washington). This was in 1978. It was also at this time that Public Law 94-142 was made
into law, now we know it as IDEA. This was also the time for Lakeland Field Services to do a massive
downsizing of Lakeland Village (Residential Habilitation Center-RHC) and Rainier School in Buckley.
I always knew that all men are created equal and each one of us has a
purpose and ability to give to our world…I believe this is my foundation for believing in the rights
of all people with or without disabilities. People have asked me why I got involved? I have no
relative, had no friends with disabilities when I started my journey. Now I am surrounded by people
who taught me and enriched my life who also have disabilities. When I was starting out in the 1970’s,
I believed with my whole heart that institutions would be closed and all children would be totally
included in our classrooms-these are my greatest regrets, that I was not able to see these things come
to being during my time at People First.
In the early 80’s, I was appointed as an Advisor to the People First of
Washington State Board of Directors. I held this position until I was asked to be the Eastern
Washington Chapter Coordinator. We also created People First of Idaho at this time since their
chapters were growing and needed their own entity. I became the first Idaho People First State
In the mid 1980’s, the national self-advocacy organization was created,
Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE) in Estes Park, Colorado which I attended.
On December 15, 1991, the Washington People First State Board of Directors asked me to be the State
Program Coordinator—this is when the title changed from State Director to Coordinator so all would
know the Board was our Directors. I agreed to try doing the new position for 6 months to see if we all
were happy with the job….27 years later I retired.
I also needed to move the office from Tacoma to Clarkston for many reasons.
The first couple of years were years of challenges for Resa Hayes (then Board President) and myself,
but as we say, it only made us stronger and wiser.
During the 27 years:
In the early 1990’s we had a federal grant from Administration on
Developmental Disabilities (ADD) in which we created the book “NO MORE BS”. Perfectly named by one of
our members. This book was used in a Supreme Court Amicus.
In the mid 90’s Families Together and People First received another federal
grant through the Department of Education that began our research into self-determination. The main
staff members for this project were people with disabilities—this is when Resa Hayes was hired by the
organization she recently was President for. The team did research through schools in the Spokane area
which began a wonderful partnership for us to continue with Student First a decade later. Some of this
information was later used for the “Reaching My Own Greatness” curriculum.
In the mid 2000’s People First worked with Disability Rights Washington on a
federal grant again through ADD. It was focused on self-advocacy and inclusion in schools around the
state—these clubs were called Self Advocates in Motion (SAM). We were able to host a couple youth
leadership retreats in Ellensburg on the CWSU campus.
The Washington State Division of Developmental Disabilities/DDA supported
People First in many ways—DDA believed that we were the best educators for the people they served and
thus paid us for creating and disseminating helpful information for the individuals they serve. I
believe the reason why our work has been so successful is the members/staff of People First with
intellectual/developmental disabilities assisted in the creation and training of all our material.
- Reaching My Own Greatness—an interactive curriculum on self-determination
- Healthy for Life—an interactive curriculum on health issues: diabetes,
heart issues, depression, etc.
DDA has also supported People First in community awareness and chapter
building. We have worked with them to make sure that the committees and advisory groups they host
always has representation from the people they serve, people with intellectual/ developmental
At the beginning of my new position, one of the Washington State
Developmental Council staff and member were our champions—they came to Board meetings, assisted with
administrative questions, and listened to Resa and I.
The DDC also supported us financially through grants, “Mixed Voices” was
created by the members of People First to assist Community Boards and their members on how to make
their group inclusive for everyone and the need to have all voices at the table and then be heard.
Through the years, funding has always been challenging. Searching for grants
that supported what the organization determined was their priorities was especially tough through the
years of governmental small budgets, new rules and regulations, and different values.
Watching and celebrating how People First of Washington has grown not only
with the numbers, but with the abilities and strength each member has shown is a blessing. Having
young members as leaders who came up through the ranks of Student First to the experienced members
sharing their knowledge with others is certainly the gifts that I am grateful for in celebrating and
saying THANK YOU! I had the best job ever, seeing people find their dreams and then reaching for them.
I cherish all the memories you gave me.