A+ Home Care exists today because of a young mother who fought to live after falling ill with Polio. Leah Welch, also known as Jane Robb, became paralyzed below her neck in 1949 at the age of 25. One day she was taking care of her two daughters, 9 month old Jeri and 2 year old Donna, the next day she was unable to move, hold her head up or even breathe on her own, confined to a hospital for 18 months, six of which she spent in an iron lung. Even when her doctors gave her 2 -3 years to live, Leah knew differently. Leah worked hard to breath on her own and recover whatever mobility she could. Even though the polio left her completely paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, Leah did develop some movement and strength in her arms and she was able to go home to raise her girls.
Leah and her daughters lived together in a small house in Deephaven, usually relying on women looking for room and board along with work. It was hard to keep good staff due to the extremely low wages she was able to pay. Somehow she made it work. She found work writing for the “Deephaven Post” and the “Minnetonka Record” for the Vine Hill and Cottagewood areas for many years. She became a Girl Scout Leader for her youngest daughter’s troop. She became involved in the community and neighborhood and was an active member of the Congregational Church in Excelsior. Leah could not let her pride stop her from asking for help from others if she wanted to live at home, and often her doctor would come to her house and charge her $1.00 for his visit.
In late 1950’s, Leah met Wayne LaBar Johnson, who at the age of 17 was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy. Until he met Leah he didn’t think he would be able to live independently of his parents. In 1961, Leah and Wayne married and moved to South Minneapolis, Minnesota. They became involved with others with a disability and lobbied for better care. There were limited services for people with a disability offered by the State. The attendants were paid minimum wage directly from the State without benefits, work comp or unemployment. The maximum number of hours given to those with the greatest need was 6 hours a day. Leah was quite skilled at recruiting attendants for herself and often referred applicants to other people with a disability that she knew. However, the program helped only some people. Many were left without enough services, were taken advantage of, or were forced into institutional living.
In 1976, after years of frustrated efforts to live at home, and seeing the needs of others, she applied and received a grant from Hennepin County. Leah, along with her husband, Wayne, founded the first Minnesota consumer oriented non-profit agency, known as Independence Crossroads (IC). Leah and Wayne advertised and found attendants to work for people with disabilities in their homes. She found attendants for anyone who had a need throughout the state of Minnesota. She was quite proud of her ability to match an attendant with a client based on personality, location and number of hours needed. Some of those relationships lasted for years. Leah worked hard so that she and others could remain living in their own homes.
Leah noticed from early on that people often would not look directly at her. Instead they would look at whoever was with her and would talk as if she wasn’t there or wasn’t capable of speaking for herself. As a result she often went to schools to educate children and adults about people with a disability and how they are not much different than anyone else. She knew the importance of educating everyone she met. She educated people and legislators on why a person living with a disability needs to be heard and not put into institutions, as was common when she became disabled. She wanted to inspire young people on the importance of speaking up and educating the public and lawmakers that just because you have a disability does not mean you can’t talk, make your own decisions, work, go to school and participate in the community.
Leah worked hard, but she always made time to be with her family, especially her granddaughters. Four of her granddaughters lived in another state and visits were something she looked forward to. Deanna Robb-Peters, the oldest granddaughter, grew up spending a great deal of time with her grandparents and knew how their disabilities affected what they could or could not do with her. As a young child she was quite proud that she and grandma would bake a cake, or make “cheese in the oven” sandwiches. She grew up helping grandma and grandpa which was a natural part of her relationship with them, often assisting them when needed.
In 1984, Leah needed to use a ventilator to breathe. Leah again began teaching everyone around her how to live. Even though the ventilator was keeping her alive, it was not going to stop her from participating in life. And, once again, she fought the system to live in her home without 24/7 nursing care because of her ventilator. It was through her education and experience that she was able to have suctioning and ventilator care included as a daily task performed by a PCA. She often went to hospitals showing others that there is life when connected to a ventilator. Leah and others lobbied endlessly, putting in many hours at the Capitol, talking to legislators requesting better care.
In 1986, Governor Rudy Perpich signed into law the PCA Program changing the delivery of Personal Care Assistance to people with a disability who qualified for Medical Assistance. In response to this law, Donna Robb and Leah founded A+ Home Care in 1988.
In 1990, Leah received her invitation to the Americans With Disabilities Act Signing Ceremony to be held at the South Lawn of the White House on July 26, 1990. She and her daughter, Donna, granddaughter, Deanna, and her PCAs drove cross country to Washington DC not only to be present for the signing, but also to continue lobbying for people with disabilities.
While there, Leah continued her advocacy by educating legislators and the general public by speaking with reporters. Leah often said that “people who were writing the laws needed to be educated on what the needs were for those living with a disability.” It was an important day for all people with a disability, and for Leah and her family the impact was felt deeply. She, her PCAs and family were dancing in the streets along with others who were celebrating.
In 1991 Governor Arne Calson chose Leah as Minnesota’s recipient of the Victory Award for Outstanding Citizens in recognition of exceptional strength and courage in the face of adversity. There was a 3 day Gala in Washington DC for participants to meet with Congress and other Leaders. Activities included a Performance and acknowledgement of each representative at the Kennedy Center, Breakfast with the Senators, and Tea in the East Room of the White House hosted by First Lady Barbara Bush.
Donna accompanied Leah to most of the functions and was very proud of her mother’s accomplishments. Leah loved any celebration, especially if it brought focus on people with a disability.
In 1994, due to the needs of many people with disabilities, senior citizens or those recovering from an illness who do not qualify for Medical Assistance, Donna founded A+ Home Health Care, providing Homemaker and Home Care Aide Services to people who could pay privately.
Also in 1994, Leah received a special Recognition Award by Representative Jim Ramstad for her lobbying efforts for the rights of for people with disabilities.
That same year, at the request of Senator Paul Wellstone, Leah Welch testified for First Lady Hillary Clinton’s Health Care Reform. Leah and Donna met First Lady Hilary Clinton, Senator Ted Kennedy and many others who testified on the need for health care reform, especially the elimination of pre-existing conditions.
Leah loved meeting and talking to people and was never intimidated by any Legislator, Congressman or President that she met. She accepted every opportunity to meet with Congress or to testify on behalf of the needs of people with a disability. When testifying before Congress or Legislators, Leah was often quoted as saying, “Talk to the disabled community first. There are a lot of good minds out there, use them.”
In late 1999, the Work Incentives Improvement Act was passed into law. Congressman Jim Ramstad stated that Leah’s “tireless efforts and those of other advocates for people with disabilities motivated me to author legislation both in the Minnesota Senate and the U.S. House.” Leah was a member of his Disability Advisory Committee for 20 years.
Leah never stopped her fight for better care, more access and the right for people with a disability to be seen and heard! One of Leah’s favorite places to educate others was at the Minnesota State Fair. She developed many long lasting relationships through her work, including a relationship she valued with Senators Dave Durenberger and Paul Wellstone. She spent many hours working with Senator Paul Wellstone, discussing necessary changes needed in order to improve services that affect people with a disability and they got to know each other quite well, always on a first name basis.
By July 2000, Leah’s health was quite fragile. However, she was determined to speak at the Celebration of the 10 year Anniversary of the signing into law the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26, 2000. With Heather Collins holding her notes because she was too weak to do so herself, Leah spoke of the honor she felt to be on the lawn of the White House as President Bush signed the ADA Act into law, which she referred to as “a civil rights act for people with disabilities.” She spoke of what has been achieved and of the “issues to continue to fight for.” Once again, she was educating anyone who would listen. She just never stopped fighting for people with a disability. That was her last speech. Two days later, she died peacefully in her sleep, at the age of 76 in her own home, the early morning of July 28, 2000.
Leah Welch had polio, was paralyzed from the neck down, raised her two girls by herself, ended up on a ventilator to breathe, suffered the effects from a stroke and still taught all of us who came in contact with her that there was no such word as “can’t”. She said often, “If there is a will, there is a way.” She lived a long, productive and very full life. She did not let her disability, her wheelchair, or her ventilator stop her from doing what she wanted. She was a strong advocate for people with disabilities from the day she was paralyzed by polio until the day she died. We are forever grateful and felt honored that Paul Wellstone would take his time to pay tribute to Leah’s work and her accomplishments at her memorial, and speak of her strength and determination, and how proud he was to fight with her. We are also proud and honored that Congressman Jim Ramstad sent a personal letter in which he stated, “Leah was a truly special person. Her inspiring courage and powerful advocacy for people with disabilities leave a legacy of public service that will never be forgotten.”
Donna and Deanna have been profoundly impacted by Leah’s life and have been proud to join her fight for the rights of people with disabilities. We will continue to keep Leah’s legacy alive through A+ Home Care, by providing quality, compassionate Personal Care Assistant Services so that people with a disability will always have the freedom and integrity to choose where and how they live.