The Elaine Clark Center helps children with disabilities.

By Jody Steinberg

The arching gate over a driveway on Peachtree Boulevard says simply The Elaine Clark Center.

Few passing by may know that the nondescript building houses an exceptional center that has been serving exceptional children for 42 years. Those familiar with the comprehensive educational and therapeutic program at the center call it one of Atlanta’s “best kept secrets.”

The Elaine Clark Center was established in 1969, when Sister Robert Therese, who had been tutoring children with developmental disabilities, left her order to start the center, named in memory of a young student who died in a car accident. Over the decades, the center has focused on early intervention in an effort to improve the lives of children with disabilities. The center works with children from birth to age 5.

As part of its vision of being a one-stop resource for children with disabilities and their families, ECC increased out-of-school programs for school-age children, offers comprehensive therapy services and facilities to the community, and coordinates the full portfolio of services for its clients. In 2009, ECC successfully merged with Heart of Hope Academy, an accredited K-12 school for children who score low to moderate on the intelligence scale or are on the autism spectrum.

“It’s one of those stories where a merger just worked perfectly” says Kelly Driver, the center’s development coordinator. “Heart of Hope Academy is a wonderful fit. We are able to provide a continuum of care for children with special needs, and it filled a need in this area to serve kids all the way from early intervention through high school.”

‘There is a need out there’

Backed by a waiting list for its programs and a needs assessment conducted by the Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta confirming increasing demand, the Elaine Clark Center is preparing to grow physically as well.

The center is launching an ambitious three-year, $3.5 million campaign to double its size with a new building to add a gym/community room and 10 classrooms to serve older students, including life-skills and vocational training classrooms.

“We are full, and there are waiting lists for our programs,” explains Beth Schmehling, the center’s executive director. “Our kids really need more room to move and be comfortable, parents need respite and summer camp, and want somewhere for their kids to go that’s appropriate for their abilities. There is a need out there, but we can’t serve any more kids here. With the capital campaign and expansion, we’ll be able to double the size of the Academy and serve 30 more in our after school and enrichment programs, which was the vision of the whole merger in the first place.”

ECC has 60 students enrolled in daily classes, and serves more than 140 a year through out-of-school enrichment and camps. The new space will double the capacity of the academy from 10 to 20, and allow the center to increase out-of-school participation from 16 to 50 students.

The one aspect of the expansion that will not increase significantly is the need for specialized faculty. “We have so much expertise on staff, we could provide the same quality of services just adding teaching assistants,” Schmehling said.

Shoshana Ben-Yoar, mother of four who is co-chairing the parent campaign with Amanda Copeland, calls the center “a great community resource.”

A professional fundraiser, Ben-Yoar, who has sent her daughter, Gaia, 2, to the center since she was 12 weeks old, was happy to help the fundraising campaign — especially when she heard that every staff member has pledged the campaign.

“I am so unbelievably proud of the people who take care of my child, that they feel so strongly about the Center that they would invest their own hard-earned money to improve the place,” she adds.

Over the years, the center became so run down that a group of students from Chamblee Middle School who volunteered at the early childhood center launched a campaign to woo the entertainment industry to choose the Elaine Clark Center as the beneficiary of an Extreme Makeover or generous support from Ellen DeGeneres or Oprah Winfrey.

Their campaign (which can be viewed on YouTube) did not land a benefactor, but it was soon followed by Project Lipstick, which gave the aging building a facelift. Cosmetic improvements included new floors, paint, and a more welcoming reception area. When renovations revealed asbestos flooring, a special donation paid for the asbestos’ abatement.

‘Great parent involvement’

“We have great parent involvement and volunteers, but the building did not reflect the actual program,” Schmehling said as she showed before and after photos.

The bright, cheerful building has wide, freshly-painted and carpeted hallways with half-height walls exposing each classroom, so that activity can always be fully viewed by passersby. Colorful lesson plans and student photos are posted on boards for everyone to see and hallways are lined with tricycles, mobility aids and other paraphernalia unique to a school that serves students of all abilities and mobility.

Schmehling said the renovation only scratched the surface of the current facility, which was built as a warehouse in the 1950s. Although it is safe, it is not energy efficient, says Schmehling, and it needs new plumbing, wiring, light and bathroom fixtures, energy efficient upgrades, windows, doors and roof.

The center’s annual operating budget is close to $1 million, Schmehling said. A few decades ago, 75 percent of the budget was state funding. Today, that number is closer to 8 to 10 percent, while 55 percent of the budget comes from program fees, about 3 percent from United Way and the rest from donations, foundations and corporate support, she said.