It’s impossible to pick one story that defines Andrea Leebron-Clay.
The co-founder of Nightingale Healthcare’s first brush with tragedy came at age 12 when her mother died. Growing up in between two brothers, and the daughter of a physician, Leebron-Clay left Oklahoma to attend college. But after being hit by a car, she took a break.
After recovering from her broken pelvis and working with indigenous people in Arizona, Leebron-Clay returned to school — until her father was diagnosed with cancer. She went home to take care of him. By age 30, she had lost both parents.
She became a mother of four sons: Beck, Aaron, Jay and Pete. After a divorce, she relocated with her children to Idaho. She “had always sworn I wouldn’t work in a nursing home,” but moved to Spokane to start at her first skilled nursing facility.
Since Leebron-Clay’s background had been in acute rehab, she became a pioneer in an approach to patient care.
“We get people to where they want to go,” she says. “We approach patient care that way. It’s such a common-sense thing.”
She inherited a love of animals from her mother that manifested itself on her first date with eventual husband James Clay.
“He drove up in his BMW,” she recalls, “and the pygmy goats jumped up on top of his car. He was so sweet about it.”
She insisted her sons go out with Clay first to gain their approval. The fourth son, Pete Wolkin, is now the director of operations at Nightingale, the company Andrea and James Clay founded in 2014.
“She’s always been courageous,” Wolkin says. “Family has always come first.”
That was never more apparent than in 1999 when Jay, the third of her sons, died in an airplane crash. The family went to Mt. Kilimanjaro in tribute to the avid hiker.
Leebron-Clay, in addition to having weak knees, is “terrified of heights” but made it to the summit, six hours behind everyone else.
“It does speak to her determination,” Wolkin notes.
Leebron-Clay didn’t stop there. The Clay International Secondary School was founded in 2004 in a rural Kenyan village.
His mother is “never willing to settle for ‘OK,’” Wolkin says. “It would have been easy to go over there and look at lions, but there she was in the little village educating women and girls about female reproduction and health.”
The school is what Leebron-Clay calls her proudest achievement, while the death of her son will always be the hardest part of her life.
“You don’t get over it. It becomes bearable,” she says.
In addition to her three sons, the Clays are close to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and currently own five dogs and a cat. The Clays also use their home to host events for nonprofits, including Sustainable Connections, which is focused on helping local businesses become more sustainably focused.
“She’s one of the first people in the door to try something new,” says the group’s executive director Derek Long.
Leebron-Clay has pursued additional education, ranging from learning how to make documentaries to completing her Masters of Fine Arts in poetry in 2002. She even went to clown school.
Now, at age 71, she still works as a nurse liaison at Nightingale.
“I’m such an idealist and have always believed that nursing homes don’t have to be considered the way that they are,” she says. “This is my chance to do it the way I wanted to all along.”