She fought through her own illnesses to help meet the needs of homeless women on the Eastside, founding The Sophia Way, a shelter in Bellevue.
Helen Leuzzi saw the need for helping women experiencing homelessness on the Eastside. She turned that vision first into a day center, and then a social-service agency in Bellevue, The Sophia Way, with a permanent shelter and support to help vulnerable women build successful, independent lives.
Though she suffered all her life from chronic immune-system disorders, friends and family say Ms. Leuzzi channeled her energy and compassion into serving others.
“She knew old age wasn’t part of her future. She was driven to make a difference with the time she had,” said Leslie Miller, a former supervisor at Sophia’s Place, the permanent shelter in Bellevue that Ms. Leuzzi helped found.
Ms. Leuzzi died Aug. 19 at her home in Bellevue. She was 55.
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She was born April 15, 1961, in the Bronx borough of New York City, the third child of Joseph and Rosemarie Wanderlingh. She remained an East Coast girl, said her husband, Paul Leuzzi, with a direct manner and a penchant for saying what she felt. “She was headstrong, but in a nice way,” he said.
Ms. Leuzzi was in charge of information technology for the law group at Union Carbide in Connecticut when she left to start a family and help raise the couple’s three children. Her husband took a job as an attorney for Weyerhaeuser, and the couple moved to Bellevue in 2001.
Her daughter, Alex Leuzzi, said her mother was always there for her kids, leading Brownie and Cub Scout groups and volunteering in classrooms.
“With everything she did, she exhibited so much love and strength,” the daughter said.
As her children grew more independent, Ms. Leuzzi became more active in her church, the First Congregational Church of Bellevue, heading up its community outreach and social-services committee.
Single women on the Eastside experiencing homelessness had nowhere to go in 2006, when Ms. Leuzzi and other community activists began a partnership with the Bellevue YWCA, said Arthur Sullivan, the program manager for ARCH: A Regional Coalition for Housing.
“She was gracious but persistent,” Sullivan said. “That quality of taking important ideas and making them real — she had it.”
He said the church donated space at a reduced rent and provided other support to help open Angeline’s Day Center. It provided social services, meals, showers and laundry to homeless single women. But it was open only from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
On a cold, rainy November night, Ms. Leuzzi saw the women from the day center leaving to find their own way through the night. Her husband said she told him, “There has to be a better way.” In the summer of 2008, she and a group of supporters began a series of meetings to enlist the community’s help and raise money. In November of that year, The Sophia Way opened, with women staying overnight at different churches and apartments.
“What was important to me was her vision, just going out there and getting things done, not waiting for the perfect situation,” said Miller, who was one of Ms. Leuzzi’s first shelter employees and helped her open Sophia’s Place, a permanent shelter in the renovated basement of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Bellevue, in late 2012.
Miller said that Ms. Leuzzi’s experience with chronic illness, of being a patient in medical clinics and hospitals, and of repeatedly feeling invisible and not listened to, informed her approach with the homeless women the agency served.
“She wanted the staff at Sophia Way to journey alongside the women, to meet them where they were at in their lives, to treat them with dignity and as individuals,” Miller said.
With her health deteriorating, Ms. Leuzzi stepped down as executive director of The Sophia Way in 2013. She was honored for her work helping homeless women with a Jefferson Award for Public Service in 2015 and an ARCH Community Recognition Award this year.
Alex Leuzzi said her mother’s medical case was complicated and that she suffered from multiple disorders. Ms. Leuzzi was on chemotherapy once a week and flying back and forth to the East Coast, where her sister died last year of a similarly compromised immune system.
Earlier this year, Ms. Leuzzi told her husband she didn’t want to continue struggling to get better, that it was no longer a life, and that to the extent possible she hoped to die peacefully and without pain. Her children talked the day before her death about her worry that they would think she was giving up without a fight. That wasn’t the case; her son Derek called her “our forever fighter.”
In addition to her mother, husband, daughter and son, she is survived by another son, Rick Leuzzi, of Seattle, and her brother, Joseph Wanderlingh, of Holmes, N.Y. She was preceded in death by her father and her sister, Maria Gregory.
A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Sept. 11 at the First Congregational Church of Bellevue, 11061 N.E. Second St. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations in her name be made to The Sophia Way.