Joseph Spinelli of San Rafael’s Lifehouse wins Nonprofit Leadership Award

Joseph Spinelli, board member, Lifehouse, San Rafael


Joseph Spinelli of San Rafael’s Lifehouse has won one of the North Bay Business Journal’s Nonprofit Leadership Awards.

Describe your organization:

Lifehouse was founded in 1954 by parents struggling to find services for their children with developmental disabilities. Originally called Marin Aid for Retarded Children (MARC), our mission expanded over time to include services for adults in Marin, Sonoma & San Francisco counties.

Lifehouse continues to be a leader in providing services for people with developmental disabilities. Over the years, we have been instrumental in starting many services and programs in the community. We also have taken a leading role in developing recreation programs, advocating for affordable housing, and developing creative living arrangements to meet the individualized needs of the people we serve.

Today, Lifehouse serves over 260 people and is recognized as a leading agency in creating many unique services and programs. Lifehouse believes everyone should have the opportunity to live as independently as possible and to participate fully in our community.

Tell us a little bit about yourself:

I am married and we had three children, one who was profoundly developmentally disabled.

I believe that all people, including those with developmental disabilities, mental problems, “poor students,” prisoners and those with dementia, can benefit from education and that all people should be granted an education that will maximize their potential to contribute to society.

I was educated as a veterinarian and had the honor of working for 31 years at the University of California. Since 1967 I have volunteered for many organizations that serve the developmentally disabled in our community. These included Lifehouse, the Golden Gate Regional Center and Developmental Disabilities Area Board V.

After I retired from the university I became a classroom volunteer at several Marin County schools and tutored math at San Quentin.

Currently my wife and I reside in a retirement community in Fairfield, but I continue to serve of the Lifehouse Board.

What is your role in the organization?:

I am on the Lifehouse Board of Directors where I serve as vice-chair.

What achievement are you most proud of?:

In the 1970s I chaired a committee that opened Lifehouse’s first residential program for 12 profoundly developmentally disabled persons. Many could not feed or toilet themselves. That program has expanded. For some individuals, the only family they have is there.

What is your biggest challenge today?:

To develop, in our service area, low cost housing so that we can provide care for people on our waiting list and those who will be dislocated for the Sonoma Development Center.

What is the next major project either under way or on the horizon?:

To continue to develop programs for the autistic and for those being dislocated from the Sonoma Development Center. To develop low cost housing for those on our waiting list

What motivates you to volunteer your time and talent?

Seeing how well our clients are treated and how happy they are. I receive more from volunteering than I give.

How do you think your profession will change in the next five years?:

I believe the board will need to focus on developing low coast housing so that we may meet the communities’ needs in a cost-effective manner. The board will also need to be alert to reductions in the government support of health care. Many of our clients are dependent on Medi-Cal or Medicare. If these programs are cut it will endanger continuation of our programs. We would need to find alternative sources of funding.

Is there anything you would like to add?:

During the past 40 years the citizens of California have been very generous to the needs of the developmentally disabled through the Lanterman Act. I would like to see that generosity extended to those with severe mental illness that makes then unable to function.

Most admired businessperson outside your organization: Mary Jane Burke, Marin County Superintendent of Schools

Current reading: Memoirs of the Luckiest Man in the World and Musings on This and That by William R. Pritchard former dean of the School of Veterinary Medicine University of California, Davis

Most want to meet: Robert Leroy Mercer and his wife, Diana. I would like to try to convince them that people with little money and IQs below normal are worthy human beings

Stress relievers: If you look at my profile from the side it is apparently eating.

Favorite hobbies: Photography and watching old movies on TCM. Since relocating to a retirement community, I have added acting and singing.

Social media you most use: I use email, but that’s it. No Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Buzz word from your industry you hate the most: “Normalization”

Words that best describe you: My mother probably said it best. “Joe is absolutely crazy, but he is a nice man.” So, “crazy,” “nice.”