It Takes an Extra Special Person to Run 'Extra Special People'
As director of Extra Special People, Inc., a non-profit in northeast Georgia with a mission to enhance the lives of children and young adults with developmental disabilities, Laura Whitaker finds joy in her job.
When Laura Whitaker was just 20 years old and pursuing a degree in special education at the University of Georgia, she assumed an enormous responsibility: She took over the full-time position as executive director of Extra Special People, Inc. (ESP) in Watkinsville.
ESP is a nonprofit, established in 1987, with a mission to enhance the lives of children and young adults with developmental disabilities. Since 2006, Whitaker has been instrumental in the expansion of ESP from a summer camp program to a year-round provider of after-school care and family counseling for over 150 children from eight northeast Georgia counties.
Whitaker had served as a summer camp counselor for ESP at 19, but when the organization’s founder, Martha Wylie, died of pancreatic cancer in 2006, Wylie’s husband and daughter hand-selected Whitaker to plan that year’s seven-week summer camp.
She’d had friends in high school with challenges and formed a special bond with them. She was also inspired by her parents’ dedication to community service. But organizing summer camp for 150 kids with special needs was no small undertaking.
“I believed I could do it, and no one would be able to tell me otherwise,” Whitaker said.
'It's kind of addicting'
She tells a story of one of her earliest encounters of working with a child with Down Syndrome.
“Haley was 3, and she would not eat independently," she recalled. "I remember the very first time she ate a nibble by herself in my presence, it thrilled me! Little rewards like that give me energy and joy I get from nowhere else. It’s kind of addicting.”
Such success from such a gifted young lady eventually led Ashley Downs, who’d stepped in as interim director, to tap Laura for the permanent position.
Whitaker’s bachelor's degree in Collaborative Special Education, her dedication to the kids at ESP, her love and admiration for Martha, and her relationships with the parents of the kids made Whitaker, fresh out of college, respond with an immediate and gleeful “Yes!”
It was a big challenge for Whitaker. Addressing unfinished business, follow-ups with donors, and re-organization of programs were priorities. Despite the seemingly overwhelming tasks, she used her skills as a visionary to step up and take the reins. Whitaker -- now a married mother of a 3-year-old son with a master’s degree in Adapted Curriculum Classic Autism -- still works at balancing the administrative tasks and making sure she gets to spend time with the children, which she describes as very fulfilling.
“What I really love about ESP is that there is no bureaucracy involved. It’s all about the child," she said. "I can hug them and openly communicate with them. It’s all very tangible. I love the real family atmosphere with little intrusion. There is none of the difficult part of teaching in the school systems with all the paperwork and politics."
Amy Boswell, mother of Madison, says ESP was an answered prayer in helping her daughter come out of her shell. Maddie has mild cerebral palsy and autism.
"I took Maddie with me to ESP to check it out and found them in the middle of camp," Boswell said. "Laura graciously invited us into her office and made me feel like I was the only person at the facility -- giving me her undivided attention -- although it was in full swing with activities and kids enjoying their day.
“Laura was so wonderful! I was on the verge of tears, frustration, exhaustion, anger, sadness, etc... and I felt like Laura understood all of that and made me feel like it was going to be okay.
"Madison was all over her office, getting into everything, and it did not upset or bother Laura at all. She was aware of Madison's condition and her acceptance was a relief for me.”
Madison has attended two summer camp sessions and is flourishing, her mother said.
Whitaker continues to dream big. Under her leadership, the organization hopes to construct a new 25,000-square-foot fully accessible facility on a 10-acre plot of land in Oconee County that would accommodate a greater number of area families -- hundreds more.
The most difficult part about her job? Having to turn kids away because of lack of funding and space.
"This is a driving force for me to help the community see who these kids are. Watching the families under stress and not being able to help because of financial issues is a constant frustration," she explained. "Fundraisers take an incredible amount of time and energy -- not that we aren’t grateful for any donations we receive -- but we are currently trying to create a different model for fundraising.”
Carter Strickland serves as an ESP board member and is also a donor.
"Four years ago I walked into the building at ESP and the air conditioning didn't work, the toilet didnt really work, the kitchen didn't work at all, the back fence was broken," he said at a recent luncheon about the future of the organization. "The only thing that really worked was what was going on inside the building with Laura and these kids. You could see it right from the start that they had a connection, that these kids were being served by her, and that they needed help."
From making and serving food at ESP social events, to planning and hosting fundraising efforts and helping the organization network better within the community, there are an unlimited number of ways for people to get involved that will make a difference in the lives of the children and their families, Whitaker said.
“I can get people, really great people to help me work with the kids," she said. "But what we really need now is for community members to Catch the Vision! Different people have different strengths to help ESP. That’s what we need.”
Correction: The name of the interim director was incorrectly reported in the original article. It has been corrected.