How It All Started
After beginning her work as a sexuality educator in California in 2002 and in HIV and AIDS prevention in South Africa in 2004-2005, Shanya Luther returned to the U.S. and eventually moved back to Oregon where she had lived as a child.
When she started her own coaching practice in 2009 regarding relationships and sexuality, she also took a part-time job in a small non-profit working with people with intellectual and developmental diversity to supplement her income. While she was hired to help people with activities of daily living (ADL’s), when her clients’ parents found out she was a sexuality educator, they desperately wanted her to help them with all the issues they were struggling with. And so it began!
Discovering the Overwhelming Need
The organization Shanya was working for unexpectedly shut down in 2010, but not before Shanya had done extensive marketing and networking about the social-sexual support services she was offering and hearing from everyone she spoke to talk about how desperately these services were needed. This led to a crucial choice – let the whole thing die before it even got off the ground, or start her own business and become an independent consultant?
Shanya admits that she was both scared and intimidated about becoming an independent consultant… but the needs were so glaring and the supports were so lacking that she knew what she had to do. And the community certainly affirmed her decision! It was less than a full year into this work that she had a waitlist over a year long. This led to the next crucial choice – whether to keep doing the work on her own and know she’d never get to help everyone who needed it, or to become a provider agency so she could hire employees and teach them to do this work also?
The Formation of Among Friends, LLC
In 2012, responding to the resounding demand for social-sexual support services, Shanya officially formed her agency, Among Friends, LLC. Her first employee was her aunt, who had been a counselor in Ohio for years and who had moved back to Oregon. In the first year the agency grew to 4 employees and Shanya’s mom volunteered as the agency’s bookkeeper and administrative support to help Shanya keep her sanity! The agency had an office in a shared office suite in a beautiful professional building in SW Portland, Oregon.
Business picked up quickly. In those first few years Shanya did almost everything in the business, including: marketing, networking, contracts, employee hiring / training / supervising, invoicing, contracts, reviewing behavior plans, meeting with clients and their teams, and SO MUCH MORE! She also developed new curriculum, created tools and resources, and designed trainings for parents and professionals.
A Rocky Road
Unfortunately, the title of this section is not referring to delicious ice cream. The first few years of being an agency were HARD. Now, anyone who has ever started a new business will tell you this is true… but this work was especially hard because the Oregon state department overseeing developmental disabilities services was in crisis. In fact, they were apparently getting their a** kicked by the federal medicaid funding sources for being out of compliance on many issues. And on so many levels, the system was unbelievably dysfunctional.
What this meant for providers was that the proverbial left hand did not know what the right hand was doing. State policies were out of date, state staff lost peoples’ documentation. Each county program interpreted the rules differently, and when we called the state to get clarification or guidance we received conflicting answers. And on top of all of that, providers like us weren’t getting paid properly. And when we were paid, payments were delayed – sometimes for months on end. For Among Friends, this meant we were not receiving the income we were owed, but we still had to pay our staff. This chaos and instability on the state level led to Among Friends having to lay off all our staff in December of 2015.
Taking a Break
After having to let all of her staff go, Shanya knew that the state was going to be creating even more chaos as they implemented K Plan changes in DD services and launched the new eXPRS payment system. And quite frankly, she wasn’t sure having to deal with all of the instability and frustration would be worth it.
So, in 2016 Shanya took a year long break from providing almost all Behavior Services through the DD system in Oregon and returned to being an independent consultant rather than a provider agency. She kept a few clients to ensure her accreditation stayed active, but to pay the bills she focused on building her private practice and trainings. She planned to wait out the state changes so she could decide if continuing to offer behavior services would be worth the effort going forward.
Dipping a Toe Back In The Water
After witnessing the turmoil of 2015-2016 in Oregon’s Developmental Disability Services, Shanya was able to also see some improvements in the overall system and foster a glimmer of hope that if she decided to take on behavior services clients again that it could be a viable livelihood again. She was certainly nervous, but she also knew how important these services are to people and their support teams, so she recommitted in honor of them.
In 2017 Shanya grew her business as an independent contractor and trainer. She built a training menu of over 15 different topics and started a special train-the-trainer program with two community partners – Oregon Training And Consultation (OTAC – now a program of the ARC of Oregon) and the University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD) at Oregon Health and Science University.
Shanya also started providing behavior services again. Knowing she wanted to be able to see more clients and knowing she couldn’t manage all the moving parts, Shanya hired Cara to help her out with administrative work.
Riding the Tidal Wave
The only problem with their efforts was that Shanya and Cara grew their services so successfully and the needs were so pervasive that by 2018 Among Friends had a two-year waitlist. To make sure the state understood how high the stakes were and how inaccessible behavior services were, Shanya cc’d the Oregon DD services office on every person she had to waitlist and turn away. Knowing this was not sustainable, Shanya once again began looking for options to teach more people to address social-sexual issues.
With some creativity, in 2019 Shanya and Cara developed an internship program that would allow people working in the developmental disabilities field with an interest in becoming a behavior professional an opportunity to work with Among Friends and receive supervision and mentoring along the way. The program also gave current behavior professionals the opportunity to work with Among Friends to develop their comfort and knowledge of social-sexual behaviors and their skills in addressing those behaviors.
This internship program allowed Among Friends to build more capacity for addressing social-sexual concerns AND allowed us to serve more people in need. We quickly grew to have 5 interns and Cara stepped into a much bigger role of helping run the company.
Shanya and Cara also decided it was time to become a provider agency again so they could hire employees and further build their capacity to offer their services. They worked for months on filling out all of the paperwork, navigating the red tape, finding insurance, dealing with licensing, setting up payroll, and so much more! Their goal was to be able to serve more people and by January 2020 they were well on their way. …And then all hell broke loose.
Virtually No Choice
In mid February of 2020, Shanya left for a well deserved month-long vacation to Bali, Indonesia. Well, as we all know the Pandemic hit the United States in March of 2020 – and Shanya almost didn’t make it back into the country as it began to cancel all flights coming and going.
Once she did make it back, Shanya, Cara, and their interns scrambled to figure out how they were going to move forward. Luckily for them, some of their business model was already utilizing phone calls. So, like the rest of the world, they quickly had to pivot all of their business services to online Zoom options. This included all of our behavior services and trainings. The hidden benefit to all of this was that we were, indeed, able to serve more and more people because we were no longer hindered by geography.
In September 2020 they hired one of their interns to be their first Behavior Services Program Manager with the hope this would allow Shanya to further expand the Training Program and begin to build the Marketplace Program. Cara became the Operations Manager. We grew the programs and the staff, and within the first year, we had 5 additional employees and were serving people across Oregon!
The Among Friends team really got tested in the Fall of 2021 when Shanya had a medical condition that meant she couldn’t work for most of a month. But they rallied together and pulled it through!
Over the next year we were tested even more. We gained staff, we lost staff, we added services, we changed policies and procedures. We did a lot of things right and we made plenty of mistakes. But we grew, both personally and professionally, and we started to hone in on who we are as an Agency and what we need to thrive.
Part of this discovery process included Shanya acknowledging that she was burnt out and could no longer manage the entire agency. Midway through 2022, she attempted to turn over parts of the oversight to her management staff – but it seems the tests weren’t over. Before the end of the year there would be more staff changes, significant financial challenges, and lots of hard conversations. It wasn’t easy or pretty.
Making a Huge Shift
Shanya realized that for her own health and well-being something drastically needed to change. The behavior services program had been all-consuming and she had never been able to expand the training program and build the marketplace program – which were two passions she had been trying to realize for over 2 years. So, in the Fall of 2022, she announced that she would no longer run, manage, supervise, or oversee the behavior services program.
This announcement led Shanya and Cara through a wild process of figuring out what would happen to the program, the staff, and the clients?!? Would they shut it all down and just proceed with the other two programs? Would they sell the program to Cara and have her run a separate sister agency? Or, would they do what they had talked about for years…; would they officially become business partners and would Cara then take over the behavior services program and co-run the agency with Shanya?
Finding the Right Balance
Knowing how many people needed the services we had to offer, and knowing we had a core staff of talented, committed people, it was only a matter of time before Shanya and Cara found the path that felt right in their bodies, minds, and spirits. Of course, the red tape took longer to sort out.
In May of 2023, Shanya and Cara officially became co-owners and co-directors of Among Friends, LLC. After signing the legal paperwork, they celebrated their new partnership by making hand-made “love contracts” and decorating them with markers and glitter!