For Eli Hill, Extra Special People's reputation preceded it.
He had heard of the frenzied excitement of summer camp at Extra Special People (ESP) and knew children and young adults who attended the Oconee County nonprofit's after-school programs. When ESP started advertising its need for an assistant director in April, Hill saw an opportunity he couldn't pass up.
In late May, Hill started work as ESP's assistant director, filling the first full-time staff position created at ESP since Executive Director Laura Whitaker was hired in 2006. Hiring an assistant director has been made possible by ESP's capital campaign, a three-year, $5.8 million effort to build a new facility and expand the nonprofit's capacity to serve children and young adults with disabilities in Northeast Georgia.
ESP continues its search of land for purchase or donation that could be the site for a much-needed new facility. For its 26th summer, however, ESP continued rocking and rolling through the heat and the cramped quarters of its original facility, urged along by a shot of enthusiasm from its newest member.
Whitaker saw the hard-won results of Hill's work at the summer's end when two long-time members of the camp's leadership staff – who previously decided this summer would be their last at ESP – approached her again to say they were thinking about returning next summer after all.
“They told me they can't wait to see what Eli does,” Whitaker said. “That was what I was looking for: someone who has the skills to inspire people. He is the leader that we need for our college students to help carry the program into the future.”
An Athens native, Hill worked in an outdoor camp program out of state after graduating from UGA, but returned to Athens to work in the Athens-Clarke County school system and at Georgia Options, a local nonprofit with a mission of helping adults with disabilities live independently.
“I knew some of these kids, or several of these kids before, either working with them in school or through Special Olympics or Georgia Options,” Hill said. “It's a totally different thing to hear them talk about how much they love ESP and to actually see them living it.”
Joining ESP was an opportunity for Hill to fuse his work experience among different populations – and across various age ranges and settings – into one position. As assistant director, he is in charge of programs like ESP summer camp and after-school workshops.
Hill graduated from the University of Georgia in 2008 with a bachelor's degree in child and abnormal psychology and has worked in a variety of education, recreational and programmatic settings with children and adults with special needs.
“We searched far and wide throughout the country to find the right person, flew someone in to interview for the position, went through eight rounds for the interview process – and found someone who was at our back door,” Whitaker said. “I think he had gone through the exact experiences necessary to be prepared for the position he's in now.”
At ESP camp, children and young people with disabilities are well cared for, but never sheltered away from activities enjoyed in a typical camp setting. They play games outside, create skits, take part in field days and hoe-downs and go to the pool with their counselors. Under Hill, ESP is carrying out a priority of creating more opportunities for the kids and young adults at ESP to be fully integrated members of the community.
The oldest campers spent the summer creating and running several small businesses that produce crafts and baked goods. When Hill thinks of inspiring moments at camp, he thinks of a young adult named Nick. Nick was one of a handful of campers who worked in the kitchen of Morning Glory Bakery & Coffee House in Watkinsville during a week dedicated to the older campers. At the end of the week, Nick said he would like to work in a bakery, and the owner expressed a desire to one day be able to hire Nick.
“Nick has always been very exuberant in his energy,” Hill said. “But, to see him thrive in more of a leadership, sort of an adult role, was very exciting. ESP is really tackling the issue of not just being a camp for kids, and of helping find ways to get our young adults out into the community as full, participating members.”
Whitaker said that week of camp, dubbed “No Kids Allowed Week,” was Hill's first opportunity to run camp on his own. The training wheels were off – and he excelled, she said.
“His passion was important more than anything – he was willing to do whatever it took to help our adults with disabilities have a good time, but also to nurture their skills and their abilities,” Whitaker said. “That's a huge part of our mission: to educate the community about what individuals with disabilities can do, and he has really embraced that.”