Summer camp for most kids is a rite of passage.
And thanks to a local non-profit, that rite is no different for many special needs kids in Madison County and surrounding areas.
That local non-profit is Extra Special People, an organization based in Oconee County that serves an eight-county area. The camp was founded in 1986 by Martha Wylie with 21 kids in attendance that first summer.
About 250 kids currently attend summer camp these days and participate in a myriad of year-round activities and therapy for them and their families.
“Our kids are constantly going to therapies, doctor appointments, etc.,” ESP director Laura Whitaker said. “And ESP is a way of life for them – it’s their social network, as one parent said, ‘it’s everything to their child, and it’s everything to their family.’ When they come here it’s almost as if their disability melts away – they are treated for who they are, instead of what they are not.”
Whitaker said ESP campers do some typical “camper things” and they do some extraordinary things – like zip-lining, skydiving, and going down a river, even if they’re wheelchair bound.
“We want them to not just exist, but to really thrive,” she said.
Whitaker took over in December 2005 after Wylie passed way in 2004.
In 2005, ESP Summer Camp was in danger of being eliminated because of lack of funding, according to ESP’s website. When Whitaker, who was a camp counselor at the time, heard this, she pulled together the families and made a call to the community to save camp by raising $50,000 in just a matter of months. Wylie’s family appointed Whitaker as the new Executive Director in January of 2006. Since becoming Executive Director, Laura has led ESP to expanded programming, and the organization now serves more young people than ever before.
Madison County School System student services director Joan Baird, who also serves on the ESP board, said ESP has been invaluable to the students she serves.
Baird said 16 Madison County students took part in this year’s summer camp, including her own daughter, Hannah, a Madison County graduate who is now part of the young adult group at ESP. She said this group got to go to Sanford Stadium to meet, and work out, with the Georgia Bulldogs, a thrill for all of them.
They also visited nursing homes, helping out with senior citizens and they attend and participate in other social events throughout the year.
Baird says she is grateful that ESP has had the support of the county school system board and board of commissioners over the years.
ESP has been in existence for 29 years, and as always, that existence cannot continue without donations from the community.
Whitaker said there are three main ways to help ESP continue to do what it does, and to do it for even more special needs kids in the community.
One way, of course is to donate. A new campaign, called “Plant the Flag,” is a program where donors pledge $25 per month for one year ($300 total) that is 100 percent matched by the Turner Family Foundation. Funds from this campaign will be used to build a much-needed building on the ESP campus. Donors to this program receive an ESP garden flag to put in their garden, on their lawn, next to their mailbox — wherever they want — to show they support ESP.
“We are working very diligently to be able to move into a new building,” Whitaker said. “We have identified 2,000 children in our area that could be benefit from all we have to offer.”
ESP currently serves about 250, mostly from Oconee, Madison, Clarke and Barrow counties.
The second way to help is by volunteering. ESP has events and activities for the kids, an after school program and fundraisers that go on year round, activities that require a lot of help.
Whitaker said the third way the community can help is by learning how to appropriately engage the individuals that ESP serves.
“Look them in the eye when you talk with them,” she said. “Say ‘hello.’ Treat them with respect.”
Whitaker says ESP works to educate folks on including these kids in the life of the community.
For more information on ESP, go to www.extraspeicalpeople.com, or “like” their Facebook page, Extra Special People, Inc.