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5 questions with J. David Earnest
J. David Earnest, executive director of Challenged Child & Friends. - photo by Tom Reed

About J. David Earnest

Age: 57

Hometown: I grew up in Kenosha, Wis.. However, have lived in the South since 1976 and currently reside in Athens.

Length of time in Northeast Georgia: I moved to Georgia in 1984 from Mississippi and have worked in, and around, Gainesville and the Northeast Georgia area since 1987. I have been at Challenged Child & Friends since 2009.

Education: I hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Mississippi State University and a doctorate from The University of Georgia.

Occupation: Executive director/CEO, Challenged Child & Friends

Most interesting job: My current job, no question! Challenged Child & Friends is the culmination of all that I aspired to in my 26-year career in nonprofit management and a perfect match with my personal belief system.

Family information: I have been married 34 years to Margaret, a diabetes educator at Athens Regional Medical Center. We have two adult sons who both live in the Chicago area.

J. David Earnest says his job as executive director of Challenged Child & Friends is the job he’s worked his entire career to get. He calls the school a “remarkable setting” and marvels at how the facility helps students with special needs get ready to go off to a regular school. And he’s grateful for the daily successes — both big and small — that happen in the school.

Today, The Times asks Earnest five questions about Challenged Child and his vision for the school.

1. How do the programs at Challenged Child & Friends help its students become able to integrate into regular classrooms?

Our mission at Challenged Child is to serve children with disabilities and their typical peers through state-of-the-art educational, therapeutic, nursing and family counseling services in an integrated environment.

Challenged Child is a remarkable setting — a place where children with special needs have an opportunity to learn, develop friendships and grow alongside their typically developing peers. We prepare each of our students for “big school” through individual learning plans that promote learning at developmentally appropriate levels and encourage social interaction among developmentally delayed children and their typical peers.

Not only does integration in our program help to teach appropriate social interaction and the development of friendships across barriers such as communication, we teach children how to become more confident in problem-solving and functional academics, which improve chances for “big school” success.

2. What do you tell parents who are considering sending their child to Challenged Child & Friends?

Most importantly, Challenged Child is a fantastic preschool and learning environment. We are accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, a distinction earned by less than 5 percent of early childhood centers.

When touring prospective families, we always tell them that they will be entrusting their children to a school with a highly trained and talented staff, a student-to-adult ratio that averages less than 4 to 1 in most classrooms and an interdisciplinary approach that fosters developmentally appropriate practice and cross-training between therapists and teaching staff.

We hope that families will feel that they have found a place to call home and an environment where staff and parents work together to ensure the best possible early learning experience.

3. What is something you wish everyone knew about Challenged Child & Friends?

Two things, really.

First, because of the vision and energy of our founder, Jean Willers, and the commitment of Challenged Child’s volunteers, board and staff, this school has evolved into a unique community resource.

There are very few early learning centers that do all that Challenged Child does anywhere. Hall County and the North Georgia community have provided incredible support for Challenged Child and we are thankful for that commitment to children with special needs.

Even more important, I want everyone to know that Challenged Child is a joyful place. We are not a school for special-needs children. We are a school that provides opportunities for all children, regardless of ability. Often, first-time visitors to the center have a preconceived idea that because many of our children have some type of disability, that the school is a going to be a somber, quiet environment.

On the contrary, Challenged Child is place of laughter, happiness, inclusion and possibilities. We encourage everyone to visit the center and witness their investment in our children at work — and play!

4. What do you think has been the organization’s most impressive success story?

“Success” occurs every day and in many forms at Challenged Child. For each of our children, and our families, “success” may mean something that seems insignificant to others, but is monumental to them.

Some of our most joyful moments are milestones that may come later for a child than what is “typical.”

For example, a 3-year-old child sitting in a chair unaided for the first time or a child speaking their first words at the age of 4. It is a great success when a child may no longer qualify for special education due to the intensive therapy and intervention they have received at the center.

More than once in my tenure at Challenged Child, I have been blessed with the opportunity to witness 3- and 4-year-old children take the very first steps of their lives. Those important steps came with the aid of walkers or braces, and the children flanked by therapists and teachers, but each step represented a tremendous amount of work by that child, their family and our staff.

Thanks to the good people of Hall County and North Georgia, Challenged Child is one long, ongoing success story.

5. What are your goals for Challenged Child & Friends in the future?

The board of directors of Challenged Child is committed to the belief that we will continue to evolve our services and activities in order to meet the growing needs of the community and provide the highest level of preschool education and care possible.

Challenged Child is considering ways to increase our capacity for therapy services and to provide more opportunities for parents of special needs children to support one another, learn to advocate for their children and identify and access community services.

Facilities must be addressed. Challenged Child has reached capacity in terms of numbers of children we can accommodate in our classrooms. We need to develop a capital improvement fund in order to tend to an aging facility.

The most important goal, however, is to remain the remarkable resource to area children and families that Challenged Child has grown to be. There is nothing as important as helping those who are least capable of helping themselves, and the Gainesville, Hall County and North Georgia community have proven that they are willing to provide that help to Challenged Child and our work with special needs children.

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