Very few college students become their own boss at the age of 20, but in 2006, Extra Special People appointed Laura Whitaker as the new executive director of the organization. While the Kentucky-born college student successfully ran the organization, she studied at the University of Georgia and earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in special education and Autism.
ESP is a non-profit organization based out of Watkinsville, Georgia, whose goal is to give children who suffer from developmental disabilities a chance to not just survive, but thrive. In 1986, Martha Wyllie founded ESP in hopes of providing kids with disabilities high-quality affordable programs. Unfortunately, in 2004, Wyllie passed away from pancreatic cancer after finding out just three months before.
ESP had grown to serve 130 campers on a $150,000 budget at the time of Wyllie’s passing, and Whitaker stepped up to take her place after volunteering for them for just two years.
“I believe that I was a tool that was created for a very specific purpose, and I was created to be here and to benefit this place. We are very clear in our mission that people with developmental disabilities can do anything given the right support. All of us have different disabilities in our own way and the kids have taught me that given the right support I can run ESP,” said Whitaker.
Whitaker grew up volunteering with her parents, and ESP pulled her in at 18 years old when trying to find a place to volunteer during her first year of college. When asked how she was able to take over for Wyllie at just 20 years old, she said, “I assumed that I could. I knew that the children needed this place, and I knew that there was nothing else like this for them. This was a way of life for them, and so I said ‘yes’.”
Whitaker has gone on to flourish ESP in several ways. She has grown their employment up to four full-time staff members, two part-time staff members, 12 seasonal staff members, and three interns. ESP offers 360, a year-round after-school program that children can participate in every day of the week. In addition to 360, ESP holds their annual summer camps for eight weeks out the summer that offers the children recreational opportunities as well as the chance to build strong friendships with over 175 campers.
Becca Marrick, a summer camp staff member, said, “Laura has made ESP a place where my friends with disabilities can thrive, a place where they can feel at home and loved from the moment they walk in.”
ESP holds several events throughout the year in order to fund the organization. Big Hearts, the pageant for the children of ESP, has the most impact on the organization’s fundraising goals. The event started out filling up a theater at an elementary school and now sells out The Classic Center. “People from all over the Athens area come out and pay $12 to support these children,” Whitaker said. The main goal of these fundraisers is to make the children’s experience at ESP as inexpensive as possible, due to the high cost of having a child with a disability.
The Athens area contains about 2,000 children with disabilities, and ESP is now able to serve about 200 of these children. Although this number has grown exponentially since its founding, the organization plans to continue expansion until all children with disabilities can be served. “I know as we expand it will be important to Laura to make sure none of us lose sight of why we do what we do,” said Outreach Coordinator Anna Butler.
“The majority of our limitations rely around space, we just don’t have enough. We hope to expand our facilities which will allow us to expand the number of hands we touch and be able to serve them more often,” Whitaker said.
In addition to expanding their facility, they hope to increase their influence and also expand into new areas. The organization’s motto is what keeps Whitaker and her employees going; the hope to let more and more children experience “the ESP magic” every day.