Magic— it’s only way to describe the acceptance and comfort that children feel everyday as they cross the threshold into Extra Special People.
All handicaps, worries and differences are checked at the door daily at the program’s after school activities. With a dedicated director, family of employees, close ties with the Athens community and a little bit of magic, ESP is a safe haven where handicapped children are encouraged and empowered through recreational therapy, community involvement and the arts.
“I love to stand at the front and watching the ESP magic happen as the children transition after a long day at school and light up, hugging myself and the other staff,” said Laura Whitaker, ESP executive director. “That reciprocation of the children being accepted and what we receive in turn from that is truly amazing.”
At the ripe age of 20 years old, Whitaker assumed an enormous responsibility as she took over the full-time position as executive director of Extra Special People. Years later, her passion for enhancing the lives of children with disabilities continues to drive her in a position that she considers “far greater than a job, as ESP is a way of life.”
Her involvement with ESP stemmed from a suggestion from a friend to volunteer on the weekends at ESP to her serving as a summer camp counselor and as a leadership team member. “It was that Saturday in September of 2003 that forever changed my life,” Whitaker said. She was immediately attracted to the program as she quickly saw that “ESP wasn’t just a service, it wasn’t a daycare, it was a place where kids were living life to the fullest.”
When founder, Martha Wylie, unexpectedly passed away in 2004 from pancreatic cancer, Whitaker accepted the job as executive director without hesitation.
“As a 20 year old, you don’t really think about the consequences or fears that may go along with that, and I am thankful for that. I only saw the mission and knew the kids needed this place, so I stepped up to the call,” she said.
Almost 8 years later, the organization has daily programs for the children instead of just a summer camp and has a yearly budget of around $500,000. Extra Special People currently serves 190 children in 11 counties in the state and no child with a disability is turned away.
Children are given the opportunity to participate in a variety of after school activities including martial arts, music, cheerleading, art, outdoor education, home education, fitness, sports and swim. Along with these daily programs, ESP holds monthly special events and social outings in the Athens community.
“With the growth of the organization, having time directly with the kids and young adults is a refreshing reminder of why I got started working here,” said Eli Hill, ESP assistant director. “Having the kids teach ME how to do the toe touch jump they just learned in cheerleading or listening to the swimmers brag about how many back stroke laps they completed at the last practice are humbling motivators that remind me of the good that ESP as a whole is accomplishing.”
Whitaker credits Hill and the rest of her “dream team” of employees that feel like family for aiding in the organization’s success. “ESP's workplace is like a community of friends rather than an office of colleagues,” said Lydia Fletcher, an ESP communications intern.
Although Extra Special People has evolved tremendously under Whitaker’s leadership, there are even bigger plans for the future. A larger facility is in the works as there’s a need with the amount of children in surrounding counties that could benefit that are currently not involved with the program.
“While some were apprehensive of starting a fundraising campaign in a tough economic time, I knew we didn’t have a choice not to,” said Whittaker. The campaign, which launched two years ago, has now reached $1 million of its $3 million goal.
“We look forward to a future that can serve more participants, employ more staff, offer more opportunity and continue to push the envelope with how development disability is viewed by the community at large,” said Hill. “At ESP, we focus on the ability, and as we grow as an organization in our abilities to serve, look forward to more opportunity to show and serve that ability with our participants.”
Extra Special People continues to raise awareness and funding for the organization in the community through six large special events that are held annually which also help offset financial obligations for families in the program.
Big Hearts is ESP’s annual pageant in which contestants are given the ability to showcase their talents to the Athens community. This past February, around 1,500 audience members watched as 60 ESP children performed onstage at the Classic Center. University of Georgia football players acted as escorts to the contestants as they sang and danced, among other talents. All the funds raised in ticket sales for the pageant, as well as a silent auction before the event, went directly back into the program and into the ESP children.
Volunteer opportunities with Extra Special People are not limited to working with the children as there are opportunities to serve on committees and help with fundraising efforts.
“Everybody has three things to give—time, talent, and/or treasure, said Whitaker, “Some people have all three but everybody typically has one to give. Here at ESP, we embrace whatever you are able to give.”
For more information on Extra Special People, visit their website at www.extraspecialpeople.com or check out their Facebook and Twitter accounts.