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Gainesville preschool marks 25 years of helping families
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Nigel Williams, left, 4, and Joseph Arostegui, 4, play on the playground Wednesday at Challenged Child and Friends, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

The miracle of a newborn child is heralded with joy and celebration. But where do parents turn for help when their little miracle has a disability?

For 25 years, local families have been turning to Challenged Child and Friends Inc. in Gainesville.

The nonprofit preschool specializes in early intervention for children with disabilities while including them in classes with “typical” kids. Birth to age 6 is a crucial window of opportunity that Challenged Child staff seize to help a family make the most of their child’s abilities.

Since occupational therapist Jean Willers started the program by helping a family friend’s child who had been hit by a car, Challenged Child and Friends has grown to serve hundreds of families in 13 counties across North Georgia. Last year, a staff of more than 70 teachers, paraprofessionals, nurses, therapists and administrators served more 250 children on a roughly $2.5 million budget.

Hall County residents Butch and Teresa Miller sent their son Cole to Challenged Child and Friends when he was a toddler. At 7 months old, Cole was diagnosed with cerebral palsy.

Butch Miller remembers that day well.

“I was a broken man then,” he said. “I had this whole set of expectations that he would someday learn to walk, someday learn to talk ... but he would never have purposeful
movement. To hold him in my arms as a baby and to know his total dependence was on me and my wife, it was humbling.

“But what this community does is it picks (parents) up, dusts them off and puts them back on their feet and helps them give their child a quality of life they never would have had if not for Challenged Child.”

On Christmas Day in 2001, Cole died at age 14 of complications stemming from cerebral palsy. His loving spirit and winning smile is memorialized in his statue at the front door of Challenged Child and Friends.

Although Cole was never able to feed himself or pick up a pencil, Butch Miller said the memories of his oldest son keep growing sweeter. Days spent playing in the snow and riding Jet Skis in Panama City, Fla., burn the brightest, he said.

Nearly two decades after Cole was at Challenged Child, the Miller family continues to help the school’s current executive director, David Earnest, raise funds for the school that helped them give their son the best life they could.

Hundreds of other families in North Georgia call the preschool a blessing. They speak of the support they get from a community of other disabled children’s parents who, too, had dreams of kids bound for Harvard.

From 1988 to 2007, Cathy Drerup grew Challenged Child from 18 disabled children to more than 200 disabled and fully abled children. She moved the fledgling program from First Baptist Church to a renovated warehouse on Murphy Road.

The program continued to swell and another move was required just a few years later. The agency relocated to a school built on donated land nearby.

Drerup attributes much of the agency’s success to the community. She said it was the common goal of giving children a quality life that brought the community together.

“We never lost sight that children are more the same than different,” she said.

Drerup said at Challenged Child and Friends, she measured success in small achievements.

“It is seeing a child with autism on the floor pushing a car with friends,” she said. “It is seeing a child eat pudding who was on a feeding tube.”

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