Laura Whitaker first heard about ESP through a friend while she was a student at the University of Georgia in 2003. Eleven years later, Whitaker is now on the front lines of leading the organization that serves children with developmental disabilities in northeast Georgia, serving as executive director.
“I volunteered a lot through my church, and worked on immunization projects at a very young age,” Whitaker said. “Growing up, giving back to my community was always very much a part of my life and a part of my family’s life.”
Growing up in a philanthropic household in Atlanta, Whitaker always found it easy to give back to her community.
With pictures of the children that she serves around her office, Whitaker is constantly reminded of the people who she works for, and the lives that she impacts.
An army of volunteers is at her disposal, as children pile into the old gym as they wait for a day’s activities. Arts and crafts and dog grooming are some of the activities that kids partake in after school.
“We are not just a service; ESP is a way of life for the individuals that we serve,” Whitaker said. Whether on a big stage or small, Whitaker and her staff create memorable programs for the kids in either one of their 10 enrichment programs after school, the outdoor education program, their year-round Special Olympics swim team and many others opportunities.
“There is no typical day at ESP,” Whitaker said.
Arts and crafts might be a typical activity for anyone, but grooming and washing dogs is not an everyday activity, especially for the children without a pet.
After a wet day for the dogs, the staff, and the kids, the smiles that appear on many of the kids faces are worth more than any word that can be spoken or written.
While playing with dogs can be fun, the lesson of caring for another life is a skill that is invaluable. ESP always wants to be sure that each daily activity is fun and also informative.
Renee Harris, a volunteer and also a worker for the ESP 360 staff is one of many who serve at the organization.
“She just does so much behind the scenes that people don’t realize that she is doing all the time.” Harris said.
Whitaker, with the help of her staff brainstorm the larger picture, like major events such as the Big Heart Pageant. Former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray received the “Wyllie Big Heart Award” at the banquet in February. The award is named for Martha Wyllie, the founder and director of ESP before her passing in 2004.
Other events like the Jump Fly Festival, where some graduates of ESP, family, volunteers and also Whitaker skydive to raise funds for the organization. This year’s jump is on April 26. Last year, 40 participants made the dive raising $42,000 which benefited E.S.P. and its summer camp.
One participant in this year’s jump is Kyle Page, a volunteer who has been a part of the program for over two years and has known Whitaker since he first started volunteering.
“She’s been a great person to look up to and to mentor as far as the organization she runs. What she does is very inspiring,” Page said.
Eli Hill, the assistant director of programs and the camp based out of Camp Twin Lakes in Rutledge, Ga., credits Whitaker with being the backbone of the organization. He describes that Whitaker’s role has changed over the years, and is a key figure in the kid’s and her staff’s lives.
“If it weren’t for Laura reaching out to me personally I wouldn’t have found ESP.” Hill said. “Because of her personal outreach to me, it’s given me opportunity.”
Whitaker describes her experience at ESP as humbling to work with the kids and families that she serves.
“Everybody has one of three things to give, if not all of them: time, talent or treasure,” Whitaker said.
It’s obvious that Whitaker has given all of these and will continue to give in her community and with Extra Special People.