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Meet Donna Davidson of Easterseals North Georgia in Dunwoody

Today we’d like to introduce you to Donna Davidson.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I started my career as a speech and language pathologist working with children with disabilities. My passion is working with children, ensuring that they have whatever is needed to be healthy, safe and empowered to be the best that they can be. I began working for Easterseals in Massachusetts in 1987 as a speech pathology manager and then moved into the director of marketing position. In 1992, I was recruited to lead Easterseals North Georgia as their CEO. At that time, Easterseals in Georgia had gone through a difficult financial period. The state organization was disbanded, and five separate Easterseals were incorporated in Georgia. Easterseals North Georgia (ESNG) was incorporated in 1990 with very little revenue, only a few staff and a large amount of debt.

The initial step in rebuilding the brand was to conduct a community needs assessment. Results clearly indicated the need for services for children with disabilities and other special needs, especially children living in poverty. ESNG started providing therapy services to children with disabilities. While providing these services, Easterseals learned that children with disabilities were often excluded from participating in local early education programs.

ESNG opened the first inclusive early education program in Georgia serving children with and without disabilities in the same environment. An inclusive environment is beneficial, both for the child with a special need and for the other children in the inclusion classroom. Some of the benefits of inclusive child care for children with special needs include chances to learn by observing and interacting with other children of similar ages, time and support to build relationships with other children, exposure to a wider variety of challenging activities and opportunities to learn at their own pace in a supportive environment. Typically developing children can also benefit from interacting with a child with a special need in their child care program. Benefits of inclusive child care for typically developing children include increased appreciation and acceptance of individual differences, increased empathy for others, and preparation for adult life in an inclusive society. This program filled quickly and became a model for the state of Georgia as well as a model for Easterseals nationally.

We opened our second center two years later. In 1997, we applied for and became a Head Start and Early Head Start grantee. We have continued to expand this program, now serving more than 1500 children and their families daily in 12 locations in metro Atlanta and Northeast Georgia.

All of our centers are accredited by the National Association of the Education of Young Children or are Georgia Quality Rated. Easterseals’ growth strategy is a combination of identifying gaps in services in the communities we serve coupled with an entrepreneurial spirit. In 2003, while working with young children in poverty, we noticed that many of our toddlers and preschoolers were exhibiting social-emotional and behavioral challenges. Community providers were not providing mental health services to children under the age of five years. ESNG implemented the first Early Childhood Mental Health Program using the evidence-based program The Incredible Years. Easterseals has continued to educate various stakeholders on early childhood mental health throughout the last 16 years. This issue is now at the forefront of many researchers and national agencies.

In 2007, Easterseals began administering the Babies Can’t Wait Program for the Counties of Gwinnett, Newton, and Rockdale serving more than 2,000 children annually with disabilities ages birth to three.

Currently, we are working on a three-year grant-funded project to develop a Preschool STEM supplemental curriculum. Studies by the National Science Teachers Association show that young children learn through active exploration—and the drive to observe, interact, discover and explore is inherent in their development. And it is during these years that many in the education community believe that evidenced-based STEM curricula should begin, setting children on a path to develop a love of scientific inquiry.

I have had the privilege of serving as the CEO of ESNG for nearly 28 years. We have grown from an organization of three employees on the brink of bankruptcy, to one of the 50 largest nonprofits in Georgia employing more than 300 people and serving more than 5,000 children and their families annually. But our work is not done. We will continue to develop programs and services to ensure that all of Georgia’s children are 100% empowered and 100% included.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
The past 28 years have been a journey of ups and downs, often learning more from bruises than brilliance. As with most nonprofits, the struggles are related to a lack of resources to meet the needs of the community. For us, we have struggled with the community understanding what Easterseals does. 96 percent of our funds go into direct services, so we have been quietly, but purposefully fulfilling our mission, often known as the best-kept secret. However, this has impacted our ability to raise much-needed funds. We are just learning how to communicate our message and our community impact.

Please tell us about Easterseals North Georgia.
Easterseals North Georgia is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to strengthen children and their families at the most critical times in a child’s development. One of those critical developmental periods is during the first five years of life. During the first five years, a child’s brain is at its most flexible, making this a critical period for learning and growth. Some children, due to conditions noticed at birth, special needs or developmental delays which occur in the early years, risk missing some of the most important learning and developmental milestones. Additionally, science tells us that children who face adversity in the first years of life, often related to living in poverty, are at risk of experiencing lifelong effects from toxic stress. Prolonged stress during childhood can do damage to a child’s brain architecture, which can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health.

Easterseals is one of Georgia’s largest providers of inclusive childcare and early intervention. Easterseals Early Intervention Program provides critical services such as speech, physical and occupational therapy to children with disabilities. Early intervention helps keep these children on a path to making the most of abilities and skills developed during the early years. Our Early Education and Care program provides children who are living in poverty comprehensive services including early education, nutrition, disability services, medical services, and early childhood mental health. These services provide the support children need to build a foundation for a healthy and productive future.

Easterseals nurtures the genius within all children.

Easterseals success is due to the dedicated staff, volunteers, community partners, and donors who believe every child deserves a champion. They all work tirelessly to empower children and their families to become the best that they can be.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Courtesy of Easterseals North Georgia

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