It’s hard for me to recall where I first met my friend Charlie Burnett. It may have been in an office visit with his then young daughter Alyssa, or it may have been at a charity fundraiser. Through the years, and whatever the setting, Charlie was always kind, soft spoken and thoughtful, and never wavered from his principal mission – to do what was necessary to see his daughter Alyssa happy.
Alyssa is now a beautiful 30 year old woman with an infectious smile that lights up a room when she enters. Alyssa has lived with a developmental disability – in her case, a form of autism that prevents her from using words, and is associated with other medical issues including intractable epilepsy. Charlie and his wife, Barbara, have been first-hand witnesses to the challenges facing people with developmental differences – in everyday life, in school, and even in institutions such as Seattle Children’s Hospital.
A story I will always remember is recalled by Charlie and Barbara, an occasion a number of years ago (well before we launched Seattle Children’s Autism Center) when Alyssa was admitted to Seattle Children’s through the emergency department for a change in her behavior. It was clear to everyone that something was physically wrong with Alyssa, but because of her communication deficits, she expressed herself through violent behaviors. The hospital personnel were ill-equipped to deal with the situation. With Charlie and Barbara’s persistence, Alyssa ultimately received the necessary medical care, but in the process it became clear that much needed to change and improve in our system of how we were providing care and support for individuals and families impacted by autism.
Charlie was not the type of person to sit around and accept these societal failures. Recognizing his position of influence as a Senior Vice President at Costco (Charlie founded the pharmacy division for Costco), he and Barbara took aim at one of the biggest gaps of support for people with developmental disabilities. In 2004, along with a close-knit group of friends and advocates, Charlie and Barbara started the nonprofit Northwest Academy for Exceptional Children, later renamed Tessera. Tessera’s mission was to provide lifelong learning experiences for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities so that they might realize their fullest potential.
In 2008, Charlie and Barbara took charge with influential voices in the ears of Seattle Children’s leadership – supportive voices that helped us take the leap of faith necessary to see the Seattle Children’s Autism Center become a reality. This was no easy feat at the time – I can honestly say, that without the commitment of the Burnett family, the likelihood of us launching the Autism Center would have been seriously compromised.
In 2014, Charlie and Barbara again changed the face of services in our region for people with autism. The Burnetts and Tessera donated $7 million, including Tessera’s space in Bothell, to launch Seattle Children’s Alyssa Burnett Adult Life Center. In collaboration with other community providers, it offers year-round classes for adults with autism spectrum disorders and other developmental disabilities, helping to fill the enormous gap in services that occurs when other programs’ enrollment ends at age 21. Charlie and Barbara’s combined philanthropic commitment, along with Tessera, now totals about $8.5 million and is nothing short of incredible. While it was not easy to plan for and launch the center, once again, the vision of Charlie and Barbara to see a better future for Alyssa and others living with developmental disabilities proved correct. We are grateful for the Burnetts’ passion and generosity – and honored to help carry out our shared vision to provide critical resources for adults with autism.
I know if Charlie were reading this, he would deflect these successes to those around him – to Barbara, to his close friends, including Ron Yutrzenka and Mike Smith, to Costco, and to the staff at Seattle Children’s. He would reflect on the driving purpose of his work and these accomplishments – to create a better world for his beautiful daughter Alyssa. Thank you Charlie – you succeeded. I will miss you, I will always remember the sacrifices you made, and I will use your love as inspiration for the work we continue to do – for Alyssa, and for all of the children and adults that need us as their voice.