On the Pulse

‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’: Two Generations Find Joy at the Alyssa Burnett Center

4.23.2024 | Amanda Maier and Isabelle Minasian

father and son smile in a very close selfie

When Jacob finished his high school studies in 2015, he and his family looked for a place that would bring him a sense of community and where he could grow and learn new skills. They toured Seattle Children’s Alyssa Burnett Center (ABC).

Jacob’s dad, Richard (Todd) Zenter, says the family knew immediately they were in the right spot.

"When we walked in, the Beatles song ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ was playing. It felt like the happiest place on Earth and Jacob immediately felt at home,” remembers Todd.

Jacob has since passed away, but nearly a decade after that first visit, the same song plays when Todd teaches classes at the center.

About the Alyssa Burnett Center

The center, affectionally known as the ABC, was established in 2014 thanks to more than $12 million in giving from Barbara and Charles Burnett and Tessera. Additionally, the Friends of Alyssa Burnett Center Guild contributed $2.35 million since 2013. It offers lifelong learning for people age 18 and older with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities. The ABC’s goal is to support students as they build on their strengths, gain independence, connect with others and take part in the larger community in a meaningful way.

Resources become especially scarce for people with autism and developmental disabilities when they become adults, so demand for the ABC’s services continues to grow. The center currently serves over 250 students per week and offers more than 100 classes.

In 2022, the ABC team began operating from their expanded building in Bothell, Washington. The expansion project increased the building’s size and services by 40% and added three new classrooms and an elevator, which helped improve accessibility to the center for more students. The expansion was made possible by the continuous support of many generous donors.

“This is my sanctuary”

a man and young man sitting at a table together

For nearly a decade, the ABC has had special meaning to the Zenter family. When Jacob began attending in 2015, he particularly enjoyed music classes and had a calendar at home so he wouldn’t miss a session.

“Jacob always reminded me, ‘Come on, Dad, you’ve got to be ready to take me to class,’” remembers Todd. “He loved his time at the ABC and was excited to be there.”

In May 2022, Jacob had a seizure. Devastatingly, he passed away four days later.

Todd wanted the ABC to remain a part of his life, so he began volunteering in the music class Jacob had loved. Todd shares, “Being at the ABC is a powerful way for me to experience the same joy Jacob did when he was here. It has helped me grieve and share memories of my son.”

Today, Todd works as an ABC employee and helps manage a variety of classes including restaurant skills and baseball — a favorite pastime of Jacob and his family.

“Inspired by our daughter Alyssa, our family partnered with Seattle Children’s to address the critical need for continued programs and support for adults with autism and developmental disabilities. In the 10 years since it opened, it has been incredible to see the impact the ABC has on every person who walks through those doors,” says Barbara Burnett. “I’m so grateful to Todd and other parents, students and workforce members who help to make the ABC such a special place.”

Although he’s at the center up to five days a week, Todd says the novelty still hasn’t worn off. “I’m always amazed every single day I go in. I still have that feeling of, ‘I can’t wait to work today.’”

Todd shares that his coworkers are a big part of his love for the ABC. “Everyone I work with has such a great outlook. You can see their passion on a daily basis — it’s awesome. My wife says I’ll probably be working until I’m 80 years old,” he says. “When I’m having a bad day, whatever’s troubling me lessens after I get to work. The ABC brings such a positive energy to my life. This is my sanctuary; it brings me serenity.”

This year, the ABC is celebrating their 10th anniversary serving adults with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Celebrate Autism Acceptance Month in April by:

  • Attending ABC’s 10-year celebration party on Thursday, April 25, at 6 p.m. The party will include a resource fair, fun activities, food and drinks, guest speakers, and more.
  • Following Children’s on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and X, and the Facebook profiles for ABC and Seattle Children’s Autism Center for resources and stories.
  • Reading Children’s Autism Blog. The blog is designed to be a resource on autism, as well as give visitors an opportunity to comment on posts and engage with experts.
  • Finding out more about how to get involved with the ABC, including volunteer and internship opportunities, donating in-kind or financial gifts, and other ways to support the ABC’s life-changing work.