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Holiday Hope: Challenged Child and Friends benefits all types of students
Brooke Ellis, 1, enjoys pajama day at Challenged Child & Friends on the final day before Christmas vacation.

About this series

This holiday season, The Times will profile residents who have put their lives on track with help from local agencies.

For sisters Brooke and Bailey Ellis, going to school together is special.

Three-year-old Bailey has special needs, while her 1-year-old sister Brooke is a typical learner. Both girls go to preschool at Challenged Child and Friends.

“It’s a wonderful organization,” said Ashley Ellis, Brooke and Bailey’s mother. “We didn’t realize what it offered until we were actually involved. A lot of people still don’t know what it’s about, but it’s unique and we don’t know what we would do without it.”

Shortly before Bailey’s first birthday, Ellis and her husband, Shawn, discovered their daughter had developmental delays. They were trying to find a day care for her when they realized she had particular needs from her caretakers.

Ashley Ellis said she learned about Challenged Child and Friends from a co-worker. They soon realized it was a

perfect fit for their family.

“She has just grown leaps and bounds,” Ellis said of Bailey. “She wasn’t even able to sit up when she first came here, and she is almost independently walking now.”

Linda Plants has taught Bailey for two years. She said the progress Bailey’s made in that time has been amazing.

“She’s very interested,” Plants said. “And there are attachments. She and I have a special relationship and when we come in the room you see her become excited. We’ve seen that grow so much over the last couple of years.”

Brooke has attended the preschool since she was 7 months old, and Ashley Ellis said it was “a no-brainer” for them to send her to Challenged Child, too.

“She’s just thrived here,” Ashley Ellis said. “She’s actually more advanced than many of her peers, and I think that’s really because of Challenged Child and Friends.”

Cindy Wilson, development and marketing director, said the school is Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accredited and has a strong curriculum for typical learners. She said many parents of typically learning children send their children to the school because of the quality of the curriculum and the structured environment.

Wilson said Challenged Child and Friends is meant especially for a family like the Ellises.

“Studies have shown that early intervention and integration is so key for children with special needs along with typically developing children,” Wilson said. “They are together in a learning environment and our typical children learn compassion, while our children with special needs learn normal practices from their typical peers.”

Ashley Ellis said she was also grateful Brooke has the opportunity to learn and become sensitized to special needs peers.

“For her to have that interaction with special needs children was important,” Ashley Ellis said. “She will always have a special needs sibling.”

Ashley Ellis said she and her husband both work, which would make Bailey’s weekly physical therapy, speech therapy and occupational therapy difficult. But Challenged Child and Friends is “a one-stop shop” for parents of special needs children.

“We both work full time, which is a struggle when you have a special needs child,” she said. “Just in that aspect, for Bailey to get therapy here is huge, because we’re not having to take her to four different therapies a week.”

The school admits children ages 6 months to 6 years old. Bailey, who turns 4 on New Year’s Eve, will have one year left after this school year.

“It’s bittersweet,” Ashley Ellis said. “You want the kids to start with their typical peers, but I wish we could just carry on here. This place is special.”