Lynn and Keith Volkerts with a framed photo of Lynn’s late parents George and Lena Valente.

Lynn and Keith Volkerts with a framed photo of Lynn’s late parents George and Lena Valente, whose namesake Sacramento-area charitable foundation Lynn and Keith oversee.

A shared sense of urgency about autism
Couple steers foundation gift to aid patients and families

In response to the growing prevalence of autism, health care systems and social services agencies have established a broad array of treatment and coping services for children and their families. When patients with autism reach adulthood, however, the network of support in most communities evaporates, and they must largely fend for themselves.

Stunned by that revelation, Lynn and Keith Volkerts became determined to help bring about change. They made their initial donation to the UC Davis MIND Institute in 2012 to support the institute’s longstanding drive to advance research and stimulate creation of social services programs statewide to help these affected adults. Their resolve strengthened after their two granddaughters were diagnosed with autism and began beneficial treatments at the UC Davis MIND Institute.

Through the George and Lena Valente Foundation, which Lynn and Keith administer, they recently initiated a pledge of $1 million to the MIND Institute to help fund autism research and expand the institute’s advocacy of assistance to families in need of services.

“So many single parents as well as families do not have access to the resources needed to nurture the development of their children. And the scarcity of social programs for adults who are on the autism spectrum is distressing,” says Lynn, a retired cosmetologist who serves as president of the George and Lena Valente Foundation, which is based in El Macero, near Davis. Her husband Keith, the retired executive director of Yolo Hospice, is vice president-secretary of the foundation.

“We have a growing generation of adults who need assistance in the years ahead to secure a fruitful, meaningful life,” Lynn explains. “We felt compelled to act quickly to aid these children, young adults and their families.”

Lynn is the daughter of Lena and George Valente, who as newlyweds of modest means moved in 1948 from Massachusetts to Fresno, California — with few belongings and no job prospects, but a carload of grit and determination. The couple opened a gas station there and then another in Lafayette before George took another chance and joined the sales staff of the adjoining automobile sales dealership. There he developed a fast friendship with Gene Pleau, with whom he purchased Downtown Ford Sales in Sacramento. George subsequently built a network of nine successful car dealerships throughout California.

Stresses associated with running the businesses began to affect George’s health in various ways, however. As he obtained effective medical care he committed himself to philanthropy with the goal of advancing public health, beginning with a series of gifts to UC Davis (the Valentes praised the medical care they received through UC Davis Health System). In 1995, three years before Lena died, the couple established the George and Lena Valente Foundation to perpetuate their philanthropic wishes. The foundation honored Lena in 2003 by establishing the Lena Valente Endowed Professorship in Medical Education at UC Davis.

Lynn and Keith Volkerts stepped up to guide the George and Lena Valente Foundation following the death of George in 2013. Leonard Abbeduto, executive director of the MIND Institute, recalls that he made an immediate connection with Lynn and Keith when he met them at an institute reception.

“We quickly discovered that we had the same vision for wanting to help families,” Abbeduto recalls. “We have a shared sense of urgency about filling the need and closing the gap between so many families and the help they need but aren’t yet obtaining from social services agencies.

“We have to do something to change that, and the faster, the better. That exigency fueled the Volkerts’ eagerness to authorize this remarkable pledge from the George and Lena Valente Foundation.”

Abbeduto says the unrestricted gift will help underwrite three activities:

  • to support pilot projects and seed grants to help early-career faculty members build toward larger-scale research studies in autism
  • to support innovations in clinical treatment options, including application of telehealth and other technologies to make treatment more readily accessible to underserved families
  • to expand activities that increase public awareness and encourage community inclusion nationwide for adults as well as children who have developmental disabilities.

Abbeduto says he and Lynn and Keith found common ground in their mutual concern for families.

“Lynn and Keith value family. They live for their family, and their foundation is driven by a concern about families. And the MIND Institute was created by families for families,” Abbeduto says. “A whole generation of children and young adults in need of help are not getting the services that they need. They can contribute to society in so many important ways. Letting them fall through the cracks is a societal disservice to these families.

“The gift from the George and Lena Valente Foundation will support activities that encourage inclusion of people with disabilities and help them attain a better quality of life.”