The magic of ESP
UGA alumnus runs a special program for children in the Athens area
A lot can happen in seven years. Laura Whitaker (BSEd ’07, MEd ’10) earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in special education, got married, had a son and has another child on the way. She managed to do all of this while serving as the executive director of Extra Special People.
“I believe I was created for this position,” Whitaker says. “I’m exactly where I need to be.”
Whitaker started volunteering with ESP during her undergraduate years at UGA, and she became close with its founder, Martha Wyllie.
In 2004 Wyllie was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died that fall. In December of 2005 Whitaker was asked by the interim director to plan an ESP camp. In 2006, the college junior was named executive director of the organization.
“ESP is our family,” says Whitaker. “This is more than a job. It has to be that way.”
Now a quarter century old, ESP began after Wyllie, who worked as a special education teacher in Clarke County, saw that kids with special needs had limited options for the summer. Wyllie believed those children deserved a summer camp as much as children without special needs.
Children with special needs tend to regress faster over the summer without activities to keep them busy, Whitaker explains.
“Martha wanted to create a camp with recreation and educational activities, and she started with eight families in a church.”
From the summer camp, ESP evolved into a year-round program with once-a month activities. Now it offers daily afterschool activities throughout the academic year.
“ESP is not a daycare,” Whitaker emphasizes. “The kids are thriving. They do art, yoga, swimming. They have grown tremendously.”
The program focuses on the entire family. The Bridge of Family Support program offers families an opportunity to meet each other and network with other families of special needs kids. Two psychologists facilitate discussion sessions with families.
“The kids need us, but families do too,” Whitaker says.
The hardest part of the job, Whitaker says, is turning kids away because of a lack of space. The program operates now in a building on VFW Road in Watkinsville. ESP is in a capital campaign that hopes to raise $5 million to buy land and build a larger facility. An annual Big Hearts Pageant in February that featured ESP participants raised $35,000. Quarterback Aaron Murray and other UGA football players were volunteers at that event.
Other fundraisers included a 5K race on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January, a golf tournament in March and a program called “Jump, Fly, Be Different” in April that offered donors who gave or raised $500 a chance to sky dive.
In addition to a larger facility, Whitaker hopes to offer a full-blown afterschool program, like the Boys & Girls Clubs, to more area children.
“This is a place where kids with disabilities are wanted,” she says. “When they come here, their disabilities go away, and they are just cool kids.”
Learn more about ESP at http://www.extraspecialpeople.com.