After nearly a year of leading Northeast Georgia Speech Center in downtown Gainesville, Executive Director Amy Cox’s sights remain set on fostering a safe, loving and language-rich environment for local children, teens and young adults.
Cox succeeded 46-year director Diane Brower on the heels of her retirement last June.
A native of Brunswick and graduate of the universities of Georgia and Memphis, Cox said she had heard of speech pathology but never considered it as a career when she entered college as a journalism major. The more she contemplated the vocation, though, the more she saw it as an avenue to “still do communication things and be active in helping people every day.”
Cox began her career as a speech language pathologist in the nursing home setting, primarily working with senior adults recovering from strokes. From there, she transitioned to the Hall County School System, where she served 15 years as a speech language pathologist.
“It’s one of the most challenging placements, but there’s so many kids that need help that you definitely feel like you’ve helped someone every day — and usually quite a few people, because there are big caseloads,” Cox said. “So often, you feel like you’re not helping them as much as you could because there’s so many to see and we see them in groups. There were so many times when I thought, ‘If I could just get you one-on-one a couple of times a week, I could make the biggest change in your life,’ but that’s just so difficult to do in the schools with so many kids.”
When Northeast Georgia Speech Center commenced its search for Brower’s successor, Cox said a friend texted her “out of the blue” and urged her to apply.
“I thought it was crazy,” Cox said. “Honestly I thought, ‘There’s no way they’re going to consider me as the director — I’m just a public school therapist.’ But I sent my resume in … and they wanted to interview me.”
Upon their meeting, Cox and the center’s board of directors discovered a shared vision for its next generation.
“We want this place to grow; we want to have more cutting edge technology here and to increase the quality of the services that we give to the people that come here,” Cox said. “This is a place where people in the community can come and get quality speech therapy services no matter what their income is.”
According to Cox, reimbursement issues with Medicaid and government-funded insurance alternatives make it difficult for other therapy centers to stay afloat that way, but because Northeast Georgia Speech Center is a nonprofit dependent upon fundraising, donations enable it to “keep operating and keep helping people no matter their ability to pay.”
The speech center serves about 75 clients under the age of 21. In her tenure, Cox has “significantly tweaked” the speech center’s existing programming to better serve these clients.
“I have given a lot of structure to all the programs so that we’re very intentional in the services that we provide,” Cox said.
Among the center’s offerings are Little Buds, a twice-weekly program for toddlers and their parents to learn effective visuals, sign language and gestures to aid communication and how to implement them at home for further language support, and TLC, a three-hour enrichment for 3- to 5-year-olds similar to a mom’s morning out program.
“It’s run in a way that’s heavy with visual supports (and) heavy with language supports for kids who have language impairments so that the entire three hours they’re here, they’re getting additional support for their language development,” Cox said, noting the youngsters also receive individualized support in 15-minute sessions.
This summer, middle and high school students will be able to participate in a summer connections group tailored to impart social and life skills in a group setting alongside individualized speech therapy and support on a weekly basis.
“Sometimes, teenagers (and) middle schoolers with language disorders have difficulty making connections with other kids; it’s hard for them to keep up with their peers communication-wise,” Cox said. “This offers them a safe place with a lot of support to make friends and make connections with others.”
As a director, Cox aims to offer programming and services that are continually increasing in their level of excellence.
“No matter how good it gets, it can always get better,” she said. “My primary goal here above all else — above all the kids learn, above all that we accomplish — is that these kids are in a safe and loving environment.”
Cox commended her predecessor’s work in setting the standard for the speech center and her staff for continuing to meet and exceed it.
“I’ve been told by my staff, ‘(Brower) did everything,’” Cox said. “I’ve discovered that I can’t do everything, and I’ve learned how to delegate. One thing that I observed when I first came here was how loving the staff is. They stay calm through behavior disruptions, they keep kids safe and they are, above all, loving.”
Fostering an atmosphere of love, Cox said, is the most important thing.
“Sometimes working with kids with lots of disabilities can be daunting, and sometimes it can be scary.” she said. “Knowing to expect that and treating them with kindness and love and supporting them (with) however much support they need is what we’re going to do. I’ve had so many experiences where I heard a kid say a word for the first time in their lives, or I saw a kid being intentionally communicative. Communication is the reason that we live; communication is the foundation of our relationships with other people. Being able to help kids and parents communicate with the people they love is all the wind I need in my sails.”