Getting by with a little help: The model propelling Challenged Child and FriendsMarc Schultz | April 2016
For 30 years, Challenged Child and Friends (CCAF) has worked to provide a complete suite of services for young children with special needs, aged six weeks to six years-including the professionals they require individually as well as the all-inclusive classroom that gives them confidence and friends among their typically-developing peers.
In March, CCAF welcomed new Executive Director Jamie Reynolds, who has previously worked as a nurse, a nursing educator (at her alma mater Georgetown University), and, most recently, as director of marketing and development at a private academy. She also has first-hand experience parenting children that required cardiac monitoring; when she first moved to Gainesville 15 years ago, she was "amazed" by a tour of CCAF. "Nothing like this existed when my children were young," she told us.
We spoke with Reynolds over the phone just eight days into her new role to find out about the difference CCAF makes, its place in the community, and her vision for the organization's future.
There are a number of schools and programs available for young children with developmental challenges. What sets CCAF apart?
Challenged Child and Friends is a school with a one-of-a-kind model, integrating atypically-developing children with their typically-developing peers. Both elements are very important: We strive for a 50-50 balance, where students learn from each other—gaining empathy, serving as models, and helping one another. We also hold ourselves to a higher standard: We're one of just five quality-rated early intervention centers in the county, and we are SACS-accredited—the same people accrediting Georgia Tech and UGA.
And our incredible staff makes this a one-stop-shop for parents. Along with nine teachers, we have speech therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and two nurses on-hand at all times. When needs arise, even unexpectedly, it doesn't stop a child's day or a parent's day. We understand the needs of children and parents—what an incredible help it is not to have to arrange for each specialist, or drive a child from place to place for services.
We understand the needs of children and parents—what an incredible help it is not to have to arrange for each specialist, or drive a child from place to place for services.
How did CCAF go from one therapist and one child to the full-featured school it is today?
Challenged Child began with an occupational therapist whose pre-K neighbor was in a bad accident. As someone with a medical background and a mom's heart, she understood his needs and started a program for him when there was nowhere for him to go.
Our school grew for two reasons. One, because the model works. And two, because autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy—these are diagnoses that still exist, and the need is great in any community. Parents of typically-developing children also see the advantages of the model, not just in exposing their children to diversity, but in our ability to handle unexpected needs. We like to say that we can accommodate your typical child's atypical seasons.
How does CCAF engage the community and spread the word?
We've become a sought-after solution, which is helped by word-of-mouth from a lot of professionals—pediatricians, school counselors, nurses. It's a highly unique model. Parents who move here from other states frequently encourage us to share our school model.
Part of that comes from our strong internship programs. Nursing students from five different programs cycle through, and also students getting their masters in social work and psychology. So it's a learning center for more than just children.
Another outreach program we're proud of is our family resource coordinator. She's there to help anyone in the community: You don't have to be enrolled, or on the faculty or staff, to get her help finding resources. When you have a child who is born differently from what you expected, we want to be one of your first phone calls.
Tell us about the first change you'll be overseeing: expanded school hours. Why was the decision made, and how have board and staff felt about it?
That decision is about becoming more relevant. Our area is mostly dual-income homes at this point, and the Northeast Georgia Healthcare System is the largest employer in the county. I know from my time as a nurse that often have to be at work by 7 o'clock. So by not opening our doors until after 7, we exclude a whole population. On top of that, health care professionals and teachers already understand the benefits of having their typically-developing children here—there's no need to educate them about the advantages.
It had been talked about for a few years, so it was not a hard sell for board or staff. And we've had a very positive response to that change in our current enrollment cycle.
What else do you have planned for the organization's future?
There are so many wonderful things about Challenged Children. At times, of course, everyone is guilty of trying to be too much for too man—and we do bite off a lot. So we're going to evaluate everything in this first year, and continue to do what we do well and uniquely.
Today, we're serving families in 13 counties. My vision would be for this model to be duplicated in towns across the country. Every town has a need like ours.
Marc Schultz is contributing editor at GCN.