Stephen’s House – Creating Connections that Serve Our Special Needs Community

BISNF - Stephen's House logoThe Bainbridge Island Special Needs Foundation (BISNF), also known as Stephen’s House, is a non-profit organization designed to assist adults with developmental disabilities. As stated in their “Mission” statement, they “believe that adults with disabilities thrive through participation in community-based recreational and social activities.” The organization got its start back in 1999, when a small group of parents, whose children with disabilities were aging out of the school system, saw a need for these young adults to have continued participation in community engagement and social activities once they left the school system. When the historic Stephen’s House building, owned by Eagle Harbor Congregational Church became available, they jumped at the opportunity to rent it and create programming for this small community of special needs adults.

In 2002, Stephen’s House began its full-time programing, offering activities that were site-specific, where their members would create cards and soaps to sell, and in one case they housed a member’s business, Trepp’s Donuts. As time went on, the programming grew and changed to offer more varied activities both on and off site. These off-site programs enabled the members to participate and engage with the community on Bainbridge as well as the greater Kitsap County area. It was a huge success, and today they are at full capacity, serving 16 members and have a waiting list for new members, but it wasn’t always like that.

During the pandemic, Stephen’s House shut down completely and lost their lease at the historic location. I spoke with BISNF Executive Director, Matilda Jurdal Thulin and Program Assistant, Kianna Bair to learn how they bounced back.

Stephen's House - Matilda Jurdal Thulin and Kianna BairMatilda was born and raised in Sweden and from a young age, she knew she wanted to assist those in need. She was inspired by this desire to help by her father, who was a social worker in Sweden, “My dad has had many different types of social work jobs, I would always be very curious about the people he was working with and admire my father for dedicating his career towards supporting other people who needed it,” Matilda told me. She came to the U.S. to attend college at CU Boulder in Colorado, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Behavioral Sciences, it’s also where she met her husband. Prior to moving to the U.S. for school, Matilda worked part time for the non-profit, Healthy and Free working with young teens with eating disorders, and later she worked part-time as a social worker in a group home for autistic adults as a Group Home Assistant. After graduation she returned to Sweden and did case management in Stockholm, working with autistic adults in the neurodiversity branch and with mentally ill adults in the psychiatric department. In 2020, she made the permanent move to the U.S., eventually landing on Bainbridge.

Kianna’s desire to help those with special needs came from having a brother with intellectual disabilities, inspiring her to volunteer in her youth, including at a camp for disabled individuals. When her husband, who is in the Navy, was stationed in Bremerton in 2021 from his previous base in Virginia, they moved to Poulsbo and when the Program Assistant position at Stephen’s House became available, Kianna knew right away it was the perfect opportunity for her.

Stephen's House on Madison Avenue Bainbridge IslandMatilda joined Stephen’s House in August of 2021, initially as their Program Coordinator and later, the Executive Director. The center was still shut down, but would reopen a month later in their current location in the basement of Eagle Harbor Congregational Church with only two members in attendance. Although it was slow going, the center would reach full capacity by 2023.

Matilda is passionate about the connections she makes with her clients, “When I worked as a case manager, I missed the social connection to my clients that I previously had at the group home. I missed checking in with my clients, I missed seeing them every day and doing everyday things such as teaching them life skills, taking them on fun activities etcetera,” she explained. “As a case manager you do not get that connection, and you have a much more anonymous relationship to your clients. At Stephen’s House, I get to spend every day of the week with our members and it gives me so much joy to have that connection on a daily basis.”

Stephen's House members out and aboutStephen’s House has always been about community engagement and respite care, but Matilda and Kianna have worked hard to expand that engagement, as well as the programs they offer. They do this by making and expanding their connections with the Bainbridge community as a whole, which allows them to offer a wider variety of social activities for their members.

In 2022, while applying for a grant from Bainbridge Community Foundation, they discovered that Grae Drake, Executive Director at Bainbridge Artisan Resource Network (BARN), was also applying for a grant,  which allowed BARN to offer free classes to the Stephen’s House members throughout 2023 and that relationship continues today.

Stephen's House at Wardwell FarmIn addition to BARN, they partnered with Scrappy Art Lab (when it was across the street on Bjune Drive) to provide the members a creative outlet. When Scrappy’s owner, Rachel Knudsen needed to move the lab to a new location, Matilda introduced her to Erin Combs, who owns Wardwell Farm. The Stephen’s House members visit Wardwell Farm once a week to play with the goats and chickens, learn about growing vegetables and flowers, or just to wander around the gorgeous grounds. Scrappy Art Lab is also now housed on the farm and available for members to continue to enjoy creative activities (you can learn more about Erin and Rachel in our previous article here).

Another creative connection is with Bainbridge Arts & Crafts, where staff member Karen Cornell comes to Stephen’s House once a month for their “Creative Connections”, a program that teaches art with mobile art projects designed and delivered specifically for their participants. Members also take pottery classes at Heart & Soul, the art therapy studio on Winslow Way.

Stephen's House members out and about 2To keep their members fit, they partner Brandi Exarhos at Bainbridge Island CrossFit. Brandi encouraged Matilda to bring the members in as a whole group, initially some of the members balked, but now they love their CrossFit days and encourage each other to keep going. In addition to CrossFit, Sara Tuminello, a certified Yoga instructor and Thai Yoga Practitioner comes once a week to teach yoga. “She has this insane presence,” Kianna said, “and is able to calm them down and laughs a lot with them.” The fitness doesn’t stop with classes though, they frequently swim at the Aquatic Center, and take walks and hikes at parks throughout the island, as well as the greater Kitsap County.

Matilda and Kianna also take the members on field trips to our local museums and museums in Kitsap County, lunches out at local restaurants, cooking classes through Safeway and social events at some of the members’ homes. In addition, they arrange for special speakers to come in and talk with the members, such as officers from the Bainbridge Island Police Department.

Stephen's House visiting Pia the Peacemaker - Bainbridge TrollThe Daily Activity Program at Stephen’s House as a whole is designed to prevent depression, anxiety, and loneliness and helps the members form lasting relationships with each other. The older members often take the younger members under their wings, in what Matilda sees as a simpatico relationship. It’s “a very beautiful thing in this program, they get along famously,” she said. The varied activities also help members to feel independent and confident in their own abilities. “Coming to a community where you feel accepted and appreciated is crucial and life enhancing for this population,” Matilda added. “Everyone wants to feel like they belong, but I believe that people with disabilities especially have a need to feel included.”

Another important part of their programming is to teach members to give back to their community. To do that, Matilda and Kianna have partnered with Helpline House, where members pack lunches and they work with Assistance Dogs Northwest and the Native Horsemanship in Indianola.

Partnering with local community businesses and organizations is a key part of the programming, but the need for individual volunteers is also paramount to their success and BISNF is actively seeking volunteers to assist with their programs, for more information on how you can help, contact Matilda at

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*Images courtesy of Stephen’s House

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