Alpine woman close to realizing dream |

Alpine woman close to realizing dream

by Linda Hiller

Something has driven Ellie O’Toole all these years to a goal she is finally closing in on.

O’Toole is the force behind SALF, the Sierra Assisted Living Foundation, which is, basically, a vessel to create an affordable, interactive home for senior citizens and people with disabilities.

“I’ve found that many people have a mindset that once they go into a care facility, they’re going there to die,” she said. “And some of them actually start doing just that. For that reason, I will always continue to advocate for seniors and people with disabilities to try and keep them independent for as long as possible.”

– Personnel roots. O’Toole, 54, has lived in Alpine County, north of Woodfords, for 25 years. She and husband Terry moved to 10 acres there after living at South Lake Tahoe.

“Terry had always wanted to have a little farm,” she said. “When he first saw this place, it was a full moon, and there were deer tracks everywhere. He sat on the porch and had a beer with the Realtor, which was a mistake.”

Well, maybe not a mistake, but Terry did buy the place then and there, only telling Ellie about it afterwards – spontaneous behavior that was not characteristic to her husband, who was an electrician by trade and a builder of miniatures.

At the time, Ellie was working as the administrative assistant to the city manager of South Lake Tahoe. She, too, looked forward to eventually freeing herself from the politics of her job and becoming independent on their 10-acre “farm” with, at one time, more than 100 animals, including chickens, ducks, geese, guinea hens, hogs, sheep, goats and horses.

“I put the word out that I could do side work in my field, and right away I got too much work,” she said. “I had to hire my friends and family, which was the birth of my temporary employment agency, Substitute Personnel Service, which I owned from 1976 to 1997.”

O’Toole also opened another employment agency in Carson City, Personnel Plus, which grew to a business with a yearly payroll of $1 million, and eventually sold both businesses. In 1992, she started work on SALF, seeing a “tremendous need for housing for seniors and people with disabilities who were low income.”

– One of her favorite inspirations. O’Toole grew up in a family of eight children in Southern California. Today, she is propelled forward by the experiences she saw her brother, Ted Nagel, 41, experience every day of his life as a person with a disability.

Nagel was born with a rare birth defect – arthro-gryposis multiplex congenita – and walked with leg braces as a child. When he was in college, he broke his ankle severely and has required a wheelchair since then.

“I actually saw my brother have to move to Seattle from the Lake to get the housing and programs he needed,” she said. “Nevada is not too good in that area either.”

Also because of her work with Special Olympics, O’Toole felt driven to find a way to help people with disabilities stay independent longer.

“Medicare would only pay for something like a nursing home,” she said. “We’re working with the Legislature to try and fix this.”

– Providing an alternative. Fund-raising for SALF has been slow but steady and definitely very impressive, O’Toole said. So far, more than $2 million has been raised for the housing facility that would provide studio apartments on a sliding scale from $541 to $1,116 per month.

The first phase of the project to be built off Kimmerling Drive just west of the old Gorman’s grocery store, is estimated to cost just over $4 million. This phase will provide 60 apartments in five 12-studio apartment “houses,” each of which will have a common area. O’Toole is in the process of procuring loans for the $2.4 million balance.

“Of course, if we didn’t have to borrow money, we could keep the price toward the lower end,” she said. “But we want to get moving and plan to start in March or April.”

O’Toole said bids on the project will open this month and close in January.

The monthly rate will include rent, utilities, transportation, recreation programs and three meals a day. One of the features of the SALF facility will be to involve residents in the day-to-day running of the home, O’Toole said.

“We have many high functioning people who don’t want to just sit around,” she said. “Why not involve them in running their home?”

O’Toole said she has had a few people on the waiting list for the facility for as long as six years.

“My brother Ted was my initial inspiration, but the people on the waiting list are also my inspiration,” she said. “I know this will help so many people.”

Applicants will have to qualify for the facility by falling below the median income, which is $32,000 per year for a single person.

– Not one to sit home. Through the last two years of working to make the SALF project a reality, O’Toole has fought her own personal battle with ovarian cancer.

“I am not one to sit home, and my family is always after me to slow down, but I’ve been lucky in that I’ve suffered very little from the chemotherapy,” she said. “I’ve been real blessed. Everybody and their uncle has been praying for me – I take great strength from that.”

O’Toole said she realizes that every person has their own challenges in life, and that hers is no different in that sense.

“For me, losing my hair was no big deal, and I count my blessings every day,” she said. “Some people have trials all their lives. When I start to feel sorry for myself, I hang onto that.”

– Charity event Saturday. SALF events coordinator Joyce Buckingham has been working with O’Toole to coordinate the group’s biggest fund-raiser so far.

“Christmas at the Lake” will be held Saturday, Dec. 11, at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe Casino, featuring music groups Mumbo Gumbo and Dog with a Bone.

A silent auction, raffle and door prizes will also be featured during the evening, which begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 each and available in several locations.

For more information call O’Toole, 783-1883.