After nearly two decades as executive director of Challenged Child and Friends, Cathy Drerup officially steps down on Sept. 28.
During her tenure, the Gainesville nonprofit agency was transformed from a small program serving children with special needs into one of Georgia's most comprehensive preschools for both disabled and "typical" kids.
"I have such a passion for this work," Drerup said Wednesday. "It's exciting to see people who are so devoted to the cause: our skilled staff, our board of directors, our donors. All of it clicks. Hundreds of people tour the facility each year. They see the program in action and see that it's a good investment."
A tour of the school about four years ago convinced Brian Daniel to become a member of the board of directors.
"The place sells itself," he said, and he credits Drerup for much of its success.
"She basically built the organization from scratch," Daniel said. "She's been a great people manager and a great financial manager, and she's leaving some big shoes to fill."
Drerup announced her intention to retire six months ago, giving the board plenty of time to search for a replacement. Daniel said they have hired a new executive director, Kathy Cook, an educator from Jacksonville, Fla. She started on the job last week.
Meanwhile, friends, families, and co-workers will bid farewell to Drerup on Sept. 23, hosting an open house in her honor from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Challenged Child school, 2360 Murphy Blvd.
Drerup is quick to note that she did not "invent" Challenged Child. The program was started in 1983 by occupational therapist Jean Willers, and was incorporated as a nonprofit in 1985. Drerup was hired as its first executive director in 1988.
Though she has no background in education or rehabilitation, Drerup has been a manager in the nonprofit sector for about 30 years. In her home state of Ohio, she worked with the Girl Scout Council. When her family moved to Hall County in the early 1980s, she worked with a local crisis hot line.
Then she saw an advertisement for the Challenged Child job and was intrigued.
"At the time, the program had about 18 children and was based at First Baptist Church, which provided in-kind space for about nine years," she said.
"Right from the beginning, the Challenged Child kids were mainstreamed into the regular preschool program at First Baptist, because we believe that all children are essentially the same. When we moved to an independent facility, we took that concept with us and added the 'and Friends' part to our name."
Program keeps pace with growth
A 1991 capital campaign allowed Challenged Child to move to an 8,270-square-foot building on Murphy Boulevard. The new school started off with 33 children, but within three years, enrollment had tripled. Already, another capital campaign was needed, to construct a brand-new facility and allow room for future expansion.
The 16,000-square-foot building took shape on 15 acres of donated land, just down the road from the previous facility. The school moved there in 2000, but by 2003, the building needed more additions and improvements. Proceeds from the Medical Center Open Golf Tournament helped accomplish that goal, and a donation from a local family allowed the school to retire all of its debt.
By early 2007, Challenged Child had almost 20,000 square feet of indoor space, an operating budget of $1.6 million, and was serving about 235 children. The facility had also earned accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
That's when it dawned on Drerup that maybe she had achieved what she had set out to do.
"I really have a strong personal belief that life comes in stages," she said. "My husband Denny and I had our three children when we were young, so we had looked forward to having some 'couple' time together when we were in our 50s. I looked at the calendar and realized I was 54."
Drerup looks forward to enjoying her Flowery Branch home, playing with her two grandchildren, and spending time with her parents, who moved to Georgia from Ohio so the family could be closer.
"I want to honor them by giving time back to them that they gave to me," she said.
Drerup said she'll also consider volunteer work. "But I want to seek a balance between work and time with my family," she said.
Disabled or not, kids thrive at school
Drerup will still be a familiar face around Challenged Child, because her two grandsons attend preschool there.
She said initially, she had to sell the public on the idea that it would not be harmful to "typical" kids to educate them in a program that serves disabled children.
"It took time for people to understand that each child would be treated as an individual," she said. "But families saw that the typical children had good results (educationally) and they also developed great character traits (by being exposed to kids different from themselves). Gradually, the word got around."
Now, the program has a waiting list. Parents of children with all levels of ability have recognized the advantage of one-on-one attention from Challenged Child's staff of almost 70 people, including physical and occupational therapists, nurses, counselors, and other professionals.
The program accepts children from 6 weeks to 6 years old and provides therapy for conditions such as autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, developmental delays, and sensory impairments.
Drerup said young children naturally play together easily, and they don't seem to care that some of their classmates have wheelchairs or feeding tubes.
She said the greatest lesson she's learned from Challenged Child is that kids are kids, even if physical problems prevent them from moving or speaking.
"Every person with a disability is a person first," she said. "They all have likes and dislikes, they all have interests, they all have something to teach you about life."
Most kids "graduate" from Challenged Child to attend public schools, but they take something with them: a "can-do" attitude.
"We give the kids strength and hope and confidence, and that in turn gives our community better citizens," Drerup said. "When we sought accreditation for the school, we knew it would be a major undertaking. But we wanted to raise the bar for ourselves, because we constantly raise the bar for our kids."
Now that Challenged Child has a firm foundation, she knows the organization will be able to get along fine without her.
"We have so much support from the community," she said. "We get money from the United Way, from some insurance reimbursements, and from fees that families pay on a sliding scale. But we have to raise about $400,000 a year to make up the difference, and we've been fortunate that there are so many fund-raising events to benefit Challenged Child."
And as a member of the public, Drerup will continue to support those events.
"Challenged Child will always be my favorite charity," she said. "I will be forever grateful to the staff for their dedication and the caring, nurturing environment they've created."