Many students come to college searching for a sense of belonging and embark on a journey to find their purpose. Laura Whitaker came to the University of Georgia searching for such purpose and found it within Extra Special People.
“Philanthropy was a way of life for my family, so when I came to school at UGA, I was searching for a place to volunteer,” Whitaker said. “I heard about ESP through a friend, came for a Saturday program in 2003, and I never left.”
Eleven years later, Whitaker serves as the executive director of ESP by managing staff, working with major donors, managing budgets, overseeing multiple year-round programs, raising funds to run these programs, as well as making plans for the future of this organization.
ESP works to help the lives of children with developmental disabilities and their families in nine counties of Northeast Georgia. ESP focuses on the children’s abilities rather than their disabilities and prides themselves in never turning down a child with a disability.
“There are a lot of reasons why I love this job, but the kids are hands down the best part--especially the ones I have built relationships with over the past 11 years,” said Whitaker. “I love watching the growth of ESP as an organization and seeing families watch what we call the ESP magic.”
According to their website, ESP helps the children learn skills, self-confidence, and form relationships through arts such as, theater and martial arts, recreational therapy with yoga and a swim team, and community involvement. They offer after-school programs Monday through Thursday, family support programs, workshops, eight weeks of summer camps, and several fundraising events throughout the year.
As a mother of two kids, a member of the North Oconee Rotary Club, the Junior League of Athens, the L.E.A.D. Athens Alumni Association, the Athens Church of Christ, and as the executive director for ESP, Whitaker stays quite busy, but never fails to do all of these activities with a heart of service.
“You make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give,” said Whitaker as she reflects on her favorite quote. “My life is about service and it’s enriched because of that, whether it’s serving my children or as the ESP director.”
Whitaker has numerous accomplishments outside of being recognized as ESP’s executive director. She has been awarded the Super Citizen Award, the 40 Under 40 Award by the Athens Banner-Herald, and the Community Four-Way Test Award by the Rotary Club of Oconee County.
Over the past few years Whitaker has hired several people to help strengthen the organization. One of these was Katarina Christmann, hired by Whitaker as an intern in August 2013, who now works as ESP’s marketing coordinator.
“She’s so passionate about her work and it trickles down into everything else she does,” said Christmann referring to her boss. “Most good bosses want to make sure you’re not miserable, but she cares about where you are as a person and as an employee.”
With the help of the rest of the ESP team, Whitaker plans fundraisers like Big Hearts, where ESP kids show off their talents and abilities in a pageant where they are celebrated for who they are. Last year’s event brought in about 2,200 people and about $160,000 for the organization.
“Watching the growth of that event has been the most rewarding feeling. Eight years ago this event was a little idea that I had to convince the board to do,” Whitaker said. The next Big Hearts fundraiser is scheduled for Feb. 7, 2015 at the Classic Center.
Gina Elliott, ESP’s special events coordinator and an ESP mom, appreciates Whitaker’s commitment to the organization.
“She always puts herself second to the needs of ESP,” said Elliott. “She supports ESP’s mission and she loves the kids and families. She doesn’t ask you to do anything that she absolutely isn’t willing to do first.”
ESP is always looking for volunteers for their seasonal events throughout the year and working with people who want to volunteer and give back to the community has become something Whitaker has cherished about her job.
“One of my favorite parts of my job is to see everyday people come and try to give back to the community and to watch them be changed by those who have disabilities,” said Whitaker. “We get much more back than we give.”