Everyone has a story. When we get to know the people in our community, the world gets a little smaller and a little better. The people profiled here are the folks who make the Eastside diverse, and a great place to live. We put the spotlight on a skateboarding cop, an extraordinary bus driver, a matchmaker still searching for love, and more. In the words of Maya Angelou, “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”
By Lauren Foster, Karen Miller, Margo Greenman, Joanna Kresge, Natalie DeFord & Shelby Rowe Moyer
Photos by Rachel Coward
About a month ago, 28-year-old Amin Lakhani was sitting in front of a crowd at Bellevue City Hall. The son of Pakistani immigrants, he was there to speak about diversity. Before he began, the room was still, the audience waiting for his first word to break the silence. “I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “What’s wrong with him? How fast does his wheelchair go? And wow, that is one sexy man.” The crowd seemed to let out a giant exhale, then a collective laugh.
Lakhani is good at that — addressing his biggest insecurity right up front. Lakhani has muscular dystrophy, a condition that causes his muscles to atrophy at a slow, but inevitable rate. As a teenager, he worried his wheelchair made him look weak. It was a confidence killer.
“My goal in life was to disappear. I didn’t want people to see me as different because I thought different was bad. I thought girls liked strength,” he said.
Lakhani decided to focus on school. Maybe being smart and successful would trump his inability to walk, he thought. But after earning a dual degree from the University of Pennsylvania and pulling in more than six figures as a program manager at Microsoft, Lakhani was still finding himself sitting at home watching TV alone.
“I was sold this dream that if you do well in school and college and get a good job, and you’re well off, then the girls will just flock to you,” he said.
Lakhani leaned in for his first kiss after college with a girl he thought he had chemistry with. She pulled away.
“It was horrible. It was terrible. It was awful,” he said.
After that he hired a dating coach. “(My dating coach) said I was showing up as a sad guy in a wheelchair, both in how I presented myself, but also how I spoke to people,” he said.
But through the process he began blossoming into the guy he wanted to be — funny, self-assured, and totally dateable. He had the revelation that he was more in control of his dating life than he thought.
“I get to decide how people see me,” he said.
Since then, he’s dated more than 40 women. He’s fallen in love once, but it didn’t work out. And now he is a fulltime dating coach. He calls himself “The Dating Coach on Wheels.”
Lakhani is still searching for “the one.”
“My mom always uses a phrase in Urdu, which is the language we speak at home, which means something like, ‘I hope you find the queen or princess of your dreams,’” he said. — Lauren Foster
Founder of Ben’s Fund
Fifteen years ago, John and Traci Schneider became parents to a baby boy named Ben. At the time, they lived in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where John worked as the director of football operations for the Packers before he moved on to become the general manager of the Seattle Seahawks. Ben was a happy and healthy boy, but as he began to grow into a toddler, Traci noticed subtle differences between her son and his peers.
“Having playdates with other moms and seeing how he wouldn’t have that baby interaction, or he wouldn’t look at you, or you’d walk into a room and say his name like a hundred times and he would never respond,” she said.
Countless calls to her pediatrician did little to calm Schneider’s nerves, particularly when the doctor finally told her that he thought she might want to consider parenting classes.
What she didn’t know then was that Ben would be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder just after his third birthday.
It would take many referrals and wait lists before Schneider had answers, and even longer before Ben had the early intervention therapies he needed. Schneider’s story is similar to many others. One in 68 children has been diagnosed with autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While each of these children exists on a vast spectrum of severity, the parents of these children often find comfort in their shared parental war stories. Schneider knew firsthand the struggles other families were facing and wanted to help.
After moving to the Seattle area, Schneider connected with the Bellevue-based nonprofit Families for Effective Autism Treatment. She partnered with the organization to establish an autism grant program called Ben’s Fund, which awards up to $1,000 in services or support annually to families affected by autism.
Schneider and her husband rallied the Seahawks and the Seahawks Women’s Association (of which Schneider is the president) to their corner and began fundraising by hosting an annual primetime dinner featuring 35 to 40 players as celebrity waiters.
“You’d walk into a room and say (her son’s name) like a hundred times and he would never respond.”
Since then, Ben’s Fund has helped close to 1,100 families by providing iPads, assistance with the cost of therapy, and other necessary supports It also raises awareness about what ASD looks like to help reduce stigma and bullying.
In 2015, she and the Seahawks Women’s Association partnered with mompreneurs from A OK Autism to design autism-friendly kits with noise-cancelling earmuffs, fidget toys, and informational stickers and pamphlets, making CenturyLink Field in Seattle the first autism-friendly stadium in the NFL. — Joanna Kresge
Storyteller, Musician, and Engineer
Ginger Chien wears many hats: storyteller, keyboardist in a band, engineer, speaker, and advocate for LGBTQ people in the tech workforce.
The Eastgate resident works at AT&T in Redmond, and speaks highly of her employer. Chien has been with AT&T for years — “I started in the days of pagers” — and said the positive company culture was encouraging when she came out as transgender more than five years ago. She said the reaction of her coworkers ranged from “funny to wistful.”
Chien said her activities, like playing in a band and speaking at conferences or to parents of LGBTQ youth, raise awareness of the issues facing transgender and gender-nonconforming people. It’s about being visible.
“Especially for trans people, because so much of who we are is being seen, the idea of being closeted and unknown and unseen and invisible to everyone around us is really painful,” she said. “I (compare) it to being the opera singer who wants to sing the aria but has to do it cocooned inside a spacesuit and floating in space. Closeted in a way that no one can ever see it. That eventually felt so painful that I made some decisions to begin exploring outwardly.”
“Success is not what my parents or what culture defines it to be. Success is what feeds my soul.”
Support groups and counseling gave her the sense of safety and possibilities. “Being out on your own as a trans person is a pretty scary thing. In comparison, being in a group makes a huge difference.”
A few years ago, Chien connected with PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) of the Eastside. She attended meetings and now speaks with parents of LGBTQ youth about what it’s like to be an adult LGBTQ person. She compares what it was like growing up to what it’s like today. She shares her own story.
“I probably identified as a girl even before I could speak,” she said. “I have distinct memories of wanting to do the things that my older sister did and the things that my mom did, and it wasn’t terribly well-received.
“I like to tell my friends, and people I tell stories to, is not only was my world black and white, but television was black and white, too. And the portrayals of families were very black and white,” she said. “So I knew at a really early age that there wasn’t much room in (that) world for alternate gender expression or gender identities, and everything went deep into the closet until pretty much until my later adult life.”
Prior to coming out, Chien said, she was shy and unsure whether her dreams would be realized. Now, she’s comfortable in front of people. She does storytelling open mikes in Seattle and has also done them in New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco.
For more than 15 years, she’s been in a band called The Nasty Habits, formed at the Esprit Conference in Port Angeles. The annual conference focuses on creating better lives for anyone who is transgender.
She’s also found a place speaking at tech conferences. She spoke at the fourth annual Lesbians Who Tech + Allies Summit at the end of February. The group bills itself as a community of queer women in the tech sphere.
And at AT&T, Chien has found professional success in a company she feels values diversity. But the real success, for her, is about being true to herself. With that as her guide, everything else has fallen into place.
“Success is not what my parents or what culture defines it to be,” she said. “Success is what feeds my soul.” — Karen Miller
At the age of 5, Julie LaCombe told her parents with certainty that she wanted to be either a doctor or a nun. She hardly went anywhere without her Fisher-Price doctor’s kit.
Today, LaCombe is an urogynecologist for Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue where she said she endeavors to empower women through their bodies and health by improving their quality of life after having children via vaginal births.
“I’m the person that — years later — has to address the crime scene of a vaginal delivery,” LaCombe said matter-of-factly about her job.
Women who have large babies and whose pelvic muscles never quite recover, displacement of pelvic organs, and more are reasons women make appointments with LaCombe.
In most cases, these issues are not life-threatening, instead they cause discomfort and inconvenience. “As women, we are momma bears, we are super women, and we do everything. We don’t focus on ourselves so much, and when we do we feel guilty doing it.”
For all the quality of life improvements that LaCombe’s surgeries make for silently suffering women, she said none are more significant than those she performs during annual mission trips to Bangladesh with the nonprofit organization A Stitch in Time.
“The women there don’t sit in chairs — it’s the craziest thing — they squat,” LaCombe said of her Bangladeshi patients. “They squat to cook, they squat to give birth, and they squat to wash their clothes. So the majority of what we see there is called pelvic organ prolapse, which is when the bungee cord that is holding the uterus up becomes very elongated and the uterus is actually inverted out of the body.”
“I do these surgeries and leave in tears because as many women as we are able to operate on, we leave so many behind … there is just not enough time.”
A group of two to three surgeons (including LaCombe), an anesthesiologist, and two nurses spends up to three days traveling to meet the mobile operating room onboard a boat that can be found anywhere along the Ganges River. Once there, the team immediately begins back-to-back surgeries from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m.
“It really resets my whole philosophy and puts my First World problems into perspective,” LaCombe said. “I sort of go there and I do these surgeries and leave in tears because as many women as we are able to operate on, we leave so many behind that we don’t operate on because there is just not enough time.” —Joanna Kresge
School Bus Driver
For some students, bus drivers are the first person they see in the morning, and sometimes they’re the last person they see at the end of the school day.
Dale Clarke, a 12-year veteran bus driver for Lake Washington School District, said he wants to make the ride a positive experience for his students, and he’s found it makes a big difference in their demeanor.
“My hopes are to be an example to all of the kids that I transport because I know they’re young and impressionable, and that some of them come from families that are struggling,” Clarke said.
When Clarke first started at Lake Washington in 2005, one of his managers joked the job wouldn’t be much different than his previous work as a cattle truck driver — you herd them on, and you herd them off.
During his 30-year tenure at Carnation, a former dairy farm and research facility about 45 minutes east of Seattle, he drove bulls between Watertown, Wisconsin, and Modesto, California.
He retired from Carnation after it was purchased by Nestle (the property became Camp Korey decades later) and received a bachelor’s degree in general studies from the University of Washington in 2000. For a period, he ran a math and writing center for Cascadia Community College, and joined the school district in 2005.
“My route was a challenging route when I got it, and I had problems over the first several years,” he said. “But I found that if I treated the kids with respect, I found that eventually, over time, they would turn around.”
One student came from a difficult background and used to get a lot of bus tickets for acting out.
“I worked with him and talked to the school and finally gave him a job on the bus,” he said. “I gave him my student counter, and the teacher would bring him on the bus and he would sit there and count the students, and he thought that was great. He’s a fourth-grader this year; hasn’t gotten one bus ticket the whole year. He’s very quiet.”
Before long, Clarke’s warmth and ability to connect with his students became known to many throughout the district.
One of the most humbling moments was when he was driving a midday kindergarten route and the tight-knit group of parents awarded him with a trophy.
Clarke plans to retire in two years, when he turns 70.
If he could give his students any advice before he retires, Clarke said he would urge them to go to college.
“I went to college late in life and I finished late in life,” he said. “I lucked out in the jobs that I had. I didn’t need an education, but if I had it, I could have done a lot better.” — Shelby Rowe Moyer
President of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound
Last November, someone took a sledgehammer to the granite sign that welcomed visitors to the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS) in Redmond, the largest Islamic institution in Washington. MAPS President Mahmood Khadeer was at home when he got the call that the sign had been smashed. At first he thought maybe it was an accident. But Redmond Police confirmed that someone had intentionally tried to destroy it.
“A sign is a symbol of an organization. It is not just any sign. (It) hurt me,” he said.
But then something incredible happened. Khadeer began receiving a flurry of emails from people of all walks of life who wanted to help.
“It was an amazing experience. Then I thought, ‘OK, this may be a blessing for us.’ Now that we have more people who are connecting with us,” he said.
Khadeer and MAPS leaders decided they would replace the sign. But it would look different. It would incorporate the overwhelming support they received. The base of the new sign now has rows of handprints on it.
“We came up with this idea of building our sign on the foundation of the support that we have. And that’s why you see those handprints on the foundation; it’s sort of like, everyone in the community — Jewish, Muslim, political leaders, all the faith leaders — are holding us up.”
It started to snow the day they invited community members to imprint their hands on the foundation of the sign. Still, about 50 people, some wearing police jackets, yarmulkes, and hijabs, huddled under a heated tent as they took turns pressing their hands into the concrete. One pastor who was traveling from Snoqualmie called to say he would be late because of the snow. Khadeer said, “Please come. I will wait for you.” There wasn’t a single cancellation that day.
Over the Past 10 years, MAPS has grown to incorporate 5,ooo families from more than 50 countries.
Since November, the sign was vandalized again. The current political climate has many in the group worried, so they’ve started hosting free legal council meetings for anyone with questions.
But Khadeer is adamant that while some Muslims are being discriminated against, there’s another side to the injustice. It’s the side that showed up that snowy day; the side that wants to come together.
As the leader of MAPS, he’s most proud that he’s created a space where all people are welcome.
Khadeer grew up surrounded by those who worshiped in different ways. While he’s been Muslim since birth, he attended a Catholic missionary school in India as a boy. There, he made friends who were Christian, Hindu, and Muslim. He said he learned real human values there, the importance of diversity, and the influence a religious organization can have on helping others in the community.
“Had it not been for that school, I don’t know where I would be,” he said.
In 2006, he helped found MAPS. While there were local mosques at the time, he saw a need for a Muslim organization that could foster social events, community service, tutoring, and youth activities. Over the past 10 years, MAPS has grown to incorporate 5,000 families from more than 50 countries.
“It’s a real United Nations in the works here,” he said.
Khadeer is now focused on growing MAPS, keeping the organization safe, and going about business as usual despite any possible threats that lie in the future.
Last year, the terrorist shooting in Orlando fell on the month of Ramadan. Shortly after that attack, Redmond police called Khadeer and said they were investigating a threatening call toward the local center. Suddenly, he had to decide whether he should turn people away or whether they should come together and pray.
After taking several safety precautions, he decided that disrupting prayer would mean giving into fear. With support from the Redmond police, Khadeer and hundreds of Muslims prayed long into the night. — Lauren Foster
Callie Lentz isn’t your typical sixth-grader. At just 12 years old, the Bellevue preteen already is the founder of her own company, where she’s made funding cancer research the heart of her mission.
About five years ago, Lentz was on a walk with her dad, Ryan, when she told him she wanted to start a coffee company, Callie’s Coffee.
“My parents and my aunts and uncles always drink a lot of coffee,” Callie said. “I had done lemonade stands before, but didn’t really like standing outside and waiting for people to come by and buy lemonade. So, I thought that selling coffee on Facebook to my parents’ friends might be a good idea.”
Her father was immediately impressed by her ambition, but it was when Callie told him that she wanted to donate proceeds from the sales of her coffee to pediatric cancer research that he knew they had to make her dream a reality.
Callie’s friend Ben Towne was 3 years old when he died from a rare form of neuroblastoma, a type of cancer that affects the adrenal glands, mostly in children ages 5 and younger. She thought by donating proceeds from the sales of Callie’s Coffee, she could help.
Fast forward, and Callie’s company has donated more than $50,000 toward pediatric cancer research.
During the week, she’s a regular student at Chinook Middle School, but on the weekend, she jumps into philanthropy mode, attending fundraising events like Strong Against Cancer, an initiative inspired by the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
“It’s a lot harder than I ever thought it would be, (but) I guess that’s why I like being around all of the people. It always makes it feel like the hard work is worth it,” she said,
Callie’s parents, Ryan and Mollie, help her run the business, and her little brothers pitch in, too.
Callie’s Coffee is available on the company’s website, choosecallies.com. Her biggest clients are businesses who serve coffee in their breakrooms. Local customers include Concur, Expedia, and Valve, to name a few. However, anyone can purchase whole bean, ground, or K-cups of Callie’s Coffee, and 10 percent of sales benefit children’s cancer research.
“I think it’s important for businesses to give back because the reason that businesses are successful is because of the people who support (them),” Callie said. “You always should give back and be kind, because you never know when you might need help.” — Margo Greenman
Callie’s little brothers, Robbie and Nick, play a role in the company, brandishing the titles of chief labeling officer and chief packaging officer, respectively.
Imagine if you could make people smile and empower strangers to pursue their passions. Artist Kimberly Adams has that power at her fingertips.
Adams of Issaquah gave up her corporate retail career of 20-plus years to become a full-time professional finger painter just over two years ago.
“It’s been an amazing journey, and it’s been fun. I kind of kick myself for not doing it sooner, but also at the same time don’t think I would be where I am today if I hadn’t spent those years in corporate retail gaining
that understanding of how businesses are run,” she said.
Adams has loved art since she was growing up in New Mexico and Colorado and she studied art in college.
She’s always preferred to use her hands when painting. “You have so much more control than when you use a brush or a palette knife. You get in there with your fingers, and you have fun,” she said. “I mean, you get to move paint around. It’s kind of hard to have a bad day when you’re playing with paint on your fingers.”
Adams uses thick oil paints to cover her canvasses in bright, vibrant colors, and her love of adventure to create angelic landscapes. Her artwork can be found in Kirkland, Edmonds, Portland, and more. Her paintings are selling so well she sometimes struggles to keep up with the inventory — a nice problem to have.
She’s a board member at Kirkland’s Parklane Gallery, which represents more than 40 local artists and is the Kirkland Art Walk chair. She teaches art classes and volunteers with the Bellevue nonprofit Art Makes You. She draws inspiration from a sense of adventure and hopes that her artwork can positively influence others.
With her two kids now grown, Adams says she loves the opportunity to share her story with others and encourage them to follow their dreams.
“We all have twists and turns in our life. Sometimes we’re not positive, but I like to think there’s always a bright side at the end of the road,” she said. “I paint them bright on purpose. I want the end of the tunnel or end of the pathway to be bright.” — Natalie DeFord
Find Her Work
Kimberly Adams is currently represented by Parklane Gallery in Kirkland, at Cole Gallery in Edmonds, and more. Canvas reproductions of her work are available on iCanvas.com and she teaches classes.
Bellevue Police officer Craig Hanaumi is a pretty calm and mellow guy. But, he can get loud. Just before dropping in on a borrowed board at Bellevue Skatepark, he asked the manager to play the Beastie Boys over the mounted speakers. As “Sabotage” started blaring, Hanaumi curled up and down the wooden ramps. In the ’80s, when he was growing up in Hawaii, Licensed to Ill was an album of anthems for young skateboarders like himself.
Hanaumi, a station officer at the Crossroads Community Police Station, is passionate about community outreach. He serves dinners at the Boys and Girls Club. He teaches free self-defense classes at Crossroads Community Center. He volunteers at local schools as a music mentor. Hanaumi is a skilled trombonist. He played in the University of Hawaii’s orchestra and marching band. But he’s probably best known as Officer Craig, the skateboarding cop.
About seven years ago, Hanaumi got a complaint about some kids skateboarding in a bank parking lot. The kids were filming their own tricks, and left their camera rolling as Hanaumi approached them. In the video, which has since been uploaded to YouTube, Hanaumi chats with the skateboarders. He even attempts a trick on one of their boards before asking them to skate elsewhere. The video has more than 150,000 views and has garnered a long thread of positive comments including, “I wish cops were like this in my town.”
“Building rapport with the community, having people be more comfortable approaching us to share information with us. That solves crimes; that prevents crimes, too.”
When he was growing up on Oahu, his mom would take him and a load of friends in a station wagon to skate storm drain ditches. Now he’s often at the Bellevue Skatepark, which is owned by the city, and is one of the oldest indoor parks in the county. For him, skateboarding is fun but also a great way
to meet kids and parents in a relaxed and casual environment.
“It’s not forced, and it’s not sitting down in a circle with people talking,” he said. “It’s an activity. And that’s why all the activities are so much better. Just like any sport — basketball, baseball, whatever — there’s no forced dialogue; you’re just there.”
He became a cop because it’s the closest thing to becoming Batman, he sometimes jokes. But unlike the disguised superhero, Hanaumi is just himself, meeting kids where they are.
Officer Rob Spingler, Hanaumi’s supervisor, says when they go on calls, kids often ask other cops, “Do you know Officer Craig?”
“It’s silly because sometimes people are critical of outreach, and say, ‘Oh it’s a waste of time. Taxpayer dollars are being used to skateboard or whatever I’m doing — playing trombone.’
“But I don’t think people understand the other side of that. Which is — not just the activity — but also the benefit that comes from that,” Hanaumi explained. “Building rapport with the community, having people be more comfortable approaching us to share information with us. That solves crimes; that prevents crimes, too.” — Lauren Foster
Skateboarding with a Gun?
Officer Hanaumi often skateboards in uniform with his belt, and his gun in its holster. But is that safe? Hanaumi says absolutely. There are two safety mechanisms inside the gun that would prevent it from discharging. “Basically, the only way it can (go off) is if there’s a trigger pulled. That’s the only way,” said Hanaumi.
Need a pick-me-up?
Hanaumi’s Instagram account @craighanaumi is one of the happiest places to go when life is getting you down. Watch him playing the ukulele with kids (outtakes included), attending Zumba class in uniform, and practicing his skateboarding tricks at Bellevue City Hall.