Twenty-five years ago, occupational therapist Jean Willers helped a classroom of six pre-school age children with physical and developmental disabilities in space donated by First Baptist Church of Gainesville.
Among those first children was Randy Owens, who was left with serious physical disabilities from a car accident when he was 2. The Owens family’s special needs for their child helped inspire Willers to start what would become Challenged Child and Friends, which was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit group by the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office on April 19, 1985.
Tuesday night, at the same church, Willers and Owens, now in his 30s and a member of the group’s board, cut the cake celebrating the silver anniversary of the organization’s founding.
Owens, who is wheelchair-bound, later offered words of gratitude for Willers in a halting but clear speech that had several in the audience of 300 dabbing at their eyes.
“I want to thank Jean Willers, who first believed she could make a difference in my life,” Owens said. “Those who came in the following years believed they, too, could make a difference.”
Owens said he believed his accident was intended to help others.
“Would I rather not have these daily challenges? Of course, but (God) has given me the courage to continue doing what I can do to give a richer life to others.”
Challenged Child and Friends now serves more than 200 children in 14 Northeast Georgia counties each year.
Georgia first lady Mary Perdue, the dinner’s keynote speaker, noted that the early intervention programs and support of Challenged Child and Friends prepare children with disabilities for the “inclusion classes” they will have later on with other, nondisabled children.
“Children do not have to feel that sense of isolation in their schools,” Perdue said.
“When the people of Georgia see a need, because of their big hearts, they will step up to the plate to meet that need. This is an example of just that: A need in the community, and a community that surrounded that need to help meet that need.”
Diane Miller, the program’s first assistant director, remembered when she and Willers applied for a “Challenge” federal grant, which provided five years of funding for varied nonprofit programs across the state.
“Five years was a real challenge,” Miller said with a laugh.
Today, Challenged Child and Friends is the only organization of the 12 in Georgia that received the Challenge grants that is still in existence.
“It’s just continued to grow from the very beginning and it’s still growing,” Willers said. “We have a great variety of children and a great staff that’s very supportive of us.”
Added Willers’ daughter, pediatrician and board member Jennifer Gottsman, “I think mom’s just amazed that something that started with a classroom of six now serves over 200 children a year. It’s an amazing resource and it was a real journey.”