Jean Willers, who founded a school in Gainesville where children with and without disabilities learn together, died Tuesday, Sept. 17, at age 74.
In 1985, Willers founded Challenged Child and Friends, now Sisu.
Willers saw that “children with disabilities and their families should not be isolated anymore,” Cathy Drerup, retired director of Challenged Child, said Thursday. “That’s the way it was, and there needed to be a different way that our culture just included people. It grew from that core belief.”
It all started in 1981, when Willers wanted to help her neighbor’s son, Randy Owens, who had just been injured in an accident. She created a school environment in her home to help with his social and educational development when he was just 2 years old.
When Willers learned more about a lack of programs for students with special needs in the community, she started her own program in a donated space at First Baptist Church of Gainesville. She had six students the first year.
“It’s just hard to imagine how many disabled people’s lives she has touched throughout the community and throughout the region,” Owens said. “Without her, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I do today. … Through her working with me, she has worked with thousands of others and given them a more meaningful life in the community.”
Willers’ patience and joyful nature were some of her defining characteristics, Randy Owens’ mother, Marty, said.
“She would never give up on any of the students,” Marty Owens said. “She always believed they could be better and they could have a happy, joyful childhood just the way they were.”
Marty Owens said Willers recognized the importance of the early childhood years and helped her students become successful adults.
“She has made a huge difference in the lives of many people,” she said.
Challenged Child incorporated as a nonprofit in 1985, offering educational, nursing and family support services as well as physical, occupational and speech therapy. Sisu now serves about 300 students a year. The Owenses have gone on to start their own nonprofit, Randy and Friends.
Drerup, who was hired by Willers in 1988 when Willers returned to her role as an occupational therapist, said Willers took the time to learn each child’s individual needs and adapt accordingly.
“I love how she could share stories about their unique interests, and she could tailor her treatment and occupational therapy — and in a team, help all the different disciplines work together creating that individual plan,” Drerup said. “… I just love how she mentored and modeled and would know what would make a child laugh and what would be their biggest challenge we would have to be creative about.”
Willers not only worked with children but included families in the process, Drerup said. The organization still stands on Willers’ belief that children with disabilities should not be separated from their peers and should have regular social interaction.
Willers emphasized “being kids first” and young students spending time together regardless of their differences, Drerup said.
In 1992, Challenged Child and Friends expanded to serve children with disabilities alongside typically developing peers.
“Little kids just know how to be together,” Drerup said.
Jamie Reynolds, executive director of Sisu, said placing children with and without disabilities in an educational setting together benefits both sets of children. The children without disabilities learn “adaptive thinking,” or how to adjust to new social situations, and the children with disabilities can mimic what their peers do to learn about new activities and behaviors.
Willers’ daughters, Suzanne Hlavacek and Jennifer Gottsman, are both involved in Sisu. Hlavacek is an occupational therapist who works at the school, and Gottsman is a pediatrician on the organization’s board.
“My mom was love. Her love for children knew no bounds, and she shared that passion with us,” Gottsman said in a statement from Sisu.
Willers is also survived by husband, Don, son, Jeff, and eight grandchildren, according to her obituary.
Willers’ ideas are reaching beyond Gainesville, for example, a new school in Augusta, Apparo Academy, shadowed staff at Sisu.
“Jean’s vision is much bigger than even Gainesville and Hall County. It is now reaching to other parts of the state of Georgia,” Reynolds said.
A celebration of life will be held at 2 p.m. Oct. 12 at First Presbyterian Church, 800 South Enota Drive, in Gainesville.