Sweetwater Spectrum gets new executive director in Olivia Vain

Olivia Vain comes from Marin County’s Lifehouse nonprofit.|

Kory Stradinger, executive director of Sweetwater Spectrum, is stepping down after six years as leader of the Sonoma home for adults living with autism. His last day will be April 15 – the midpoint of Autism Awareness Month.

Coming on board as the new director will be Olivia Vain, of San Rafael, who’s worked closely with Stradinger for several years as program manager with Lifehouse, a Marin organization that provides direct-support staff for the residents at Sweetwater.

“I already know the Sweetwater residents and the parents and anticipate the transition to be quiet and carry-on-as-usual while I get up to speed learning the new processes,” said Vain, a native of Sweden who moved to the United States after marrying an American 10 years ago. She began working with special needs populations about five years ago, putting her two master’s degrees in public health and psychology to good use.

“I grew up with an uncle who had (cerebral palsy) and when I got involved with Lifehouse it probably seemed like it was meant to be,” she said.

Stradinger said Vain “really shined” in her efforts to keep staff and residents safe during the pandemic – with only one case of COVID infiltrating the premises. “She showed what a leader she was,” said Stradinger, who urged Vain to “put her hat in the ring” for the position once he’d decided to step down.

“It’s been great, very rewarding,” Stradinger said about his time at the nearly 10-year-old residence-based community at 369 Fifth St. W. “But it was kind of time.”

Stradinger, who turns 62 next month, said his wife had recently retired and, following a trip to Europe last year, the urge to join her took hold. “I’m calling this semi-retirement,” he said. “I’ll give it six months to see how it goes.”

Stradinger said he’d started the conversation about “steering the transition” at a board of directors retreat last August and wanted to give board leadership several months to seek a suitable new director.

Board president Patty Jackson said Vain’s experience working in the field of autism, coupled with having worked closely with Sweetwater in recent years, made her an ideal candidate. “We know Olivia will hit the ground running as she already has developed relationships with the Sweetwater Team, residents, families and the North Bay Regional Center,” a nonprofit that serves persons with developmental disabilities, said Jackson.

Sweetwater Spectrum opened in 2013 with a mission to help people with autism find a comfortable, supportive place to live independently after leaving their parents, who might not be prepared to care for them through their lives. The facility currently houses 16 residents and the nonprofit expects to soon break ground on a project to expand its capacity to 20.

“We received Planning Commission approval for the project last September,” said Stradinger, adding that the next step is to receive building permits. “I think in spring we’ll be able to commence – and we’re hoping construction takes about a year.”

The $2 million project will include a new 3,194-square-foot duplex on what is currently a “farm parcel” on the grounds. The single-story duplex will house four and each unit will have two bedrooms, a kitchen, laundry and storage, covered patios and landscaping. Sweetwater’s waiting list for residents hovers around 40, enrichment manager Danielle Beale told the Index-Tribune last fall.

The demand for residential care for adults with autism is growing. According to Sweetwater officials, as many as 500,000 children with autism will reach adulthood in the coming decade, yet very few residential options exist to care for them.

To that end, Sweetwater has become something of a model for other nonprofit facilities across the country to look to as they establish residential centers for autistic adults.

“We continue to be a real leader for special needs housing,” said Stradinger, noting multiple housing groups from across the country tour Sweetwater each year to get a firsthand look at the operation. Last year, Sweetwater hosted sessions for a six-week “replication symposium” that drew over 400 registrants from organizations looking for ways to expand their special needs housing.

“We continue to be pretty known as one of the first intentional communities such as ours,” he said. “People hear of us and come to us for advice and inspiration.”

Jackson described Stradinger’s tenure with Sweetwater as a period of “tremendous leadership.”

“(Stradinger took) us from a young nonprofit to an established organization that is helping to transform the landscape of residential housing opportunities for adults with autism,” she said, noting Sweetwater has inspired eight other housing projects across the country focused on meeting the needs of people with autism.

Meanwhile, continuity remains at the forefront of Sweetwater’s transition in leadership, not only for the organization in a time of expansion, but for its residents as well.

“Working with autism there are a lot of different nuances” among residents, said Vain. “Any changes to staff can be scary.”

Which is why any unsettling news of Stradinger’s departure was quelled with the announcement of Vain’s arrival – especially among those who love and care for Sweetwater’s residents the most.

“The parents (of the residents) expressed relief it was Olivia,” said Stradinger. “It’s important to them the transition is smooth.”

Email Jason Walsh at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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