Dedicated to Finding Solutions/Changing Lives

By Brad McEwen

For many in the Albany area it’s hard to think about our special needs friends and neighbors without also thinking about wonderful organizations like Easter Seals of Southern Georgia—which has been providing services to South Georgia residents with disabilities for more than 50 years—and people like Executive Director Beth English whose incredible leadership has helped turn the area nonprofit into a vital resource for residents with special needs.

Although she’s quick to deflect credit for the success the organization has seen since she first took the reins of the regional nonprofit more than 25 years ago, there’s no denying her hard work and dedication have been critical in improving the quality of life for thousands of South Georgia residents living with disabilities and their families.

Case in point, when she arrived at Easter Seals, Beth said the organization had 17 employees and a budget of $800,000. Today, the nonprofit—which provides services to individuals and families in more than 60 Georgia counties and additional 14 in North Florida—employs in excess of 250 people and has an operating budget of $14 million.

I recently sat down with Beth to discuss her role and some of the incredible things Easter Seals has been doing for its clients and within minutes I understood why the organization has been so successful and why so many people see Beth as a great champion for those residents of South Georgia who benefit from the nonprofit.

“This has not been a job for me, ever,” Beth said. “This has been a passion; it has been a calling. It has been a dream job in so many ways. I mean it really has because it’s been so much fun.”

That passion for helping people with disabilities and their families runs deep and actually predates her current position, as Beth worked for multiple entities committed to behavioral health, mental health and developmental disabilities prior to joining Easter Seals. All told, she’s been working in her field for 41 years and has done so because she truly believes it’s vitally important to protect and nurture our special needs population.

“Disability is totally non-discriminatory,” she told me when asked why her work means so much to her. “One in five. (Disabilities) don’t care what you’re socioeconomic level is. They don’t care what your ethnicity is. They don’t care what you’re religious preference is. They don’t care if you have an R or a D behind your name. It just affects one in five people.

“The work we do, for people that have a religious or a spiritual foundation, if you look at Matthew 25 it talks about the least of these. That's us. That's what we do. That's the heart of our work—caring for children and adults with disabilities, who are our state’s most vulnerable people. That's our work.”

And Beth said she came to the realization years ago, that caring for that population and being a part of that work, is exactly what she’s meant to do.

“If you’d asked me when I was 28 years old, 27 years old, I don’t know that I would have told you that this would be where I’d spend my life, but I have absolutely no regrets,” she said. “I’ve been very fortunate.”

“Every time I’ve ever tried to leave this field, doors have slammed, slammed, slammed, slammed shut,” she added with a smile. “I finally just said, ‘Okay God, I get it. I’m supposed to be here.’ I say that in jest, but with 100 percent conviction. This is where I’m supposed to be. This is my ministry. This is where I am supposed to be in my life. I truly love it.”

While that kind of enthusiasm has certainly had a significant impact on the organization, Beth emphasized repeatedly that much of the success Easter Seals and its clients have enjoyed, has come thanks to the support she’s received during her time as director. Perhaps chief among those supporters are the historically strong and active board of directors who are not afraid to join Beth in taking necessary risks to make something good happen.

“We have a board of directors who locally can make decisions in a heartbeat,” she said. “It gives us so much flexibility. It gives us the ability to act very quickly on things that are important and they give us the benefit of all their respective professions.

“We have bankers, we have realtors, we have attorneys, we have CPAs, we have business people, we have ministers, we have a lot of people who have family members with disabilities, and so we're able to keep all those perspectives out there as we're doing our work, as we're making strategic plans for the future, as we're building budgets. And they're not unwilling to take a risk, which is the best part.”

Beth said that the board’s stewardship, coupled with support from the community and the hard work of dedicated staff, has allowed Easter Seals to grow by finding new and innovative ways to support its client base—innovations such as the organization’s Megan’s House respite home for children with special needs.

“There was no money for that when we started in 2004, no money at all,” Beth told me. “I had been to see everybody on the planet that had money, the legislative folks, the department people. And it was like, if you’ve ever watched Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, do you remember when Harrison Ford steps out over the abyss and all of sudden (there was a bridge there)? That’s what we did with Megan’s House. It literally was stepping into the abyss because we had no way of knowing how we would fund it, what would happen, whether it would be supported or not.

“And here we are in 2017 and when we open the doors to this brand new dream house (currently under construction in Lee County) it will be 100 percent debt free because of the community, because of the commitment, because people acknowledge  and understand  why families caring for children with special needs have got to have support, relief and help.”

That kind of determination to fill a need—which is embodied in the organization’s leader—has been the fuel to help Easter Seals flourish and be able to provide services to thousands of people across the organization’s footprint and beyond.

“We want to fill in the gaps, and that’s why we have grown at the pace we’ve grown,” Beth explained. “To go from $800,000 to $14 million, yeah it’s been 25 years, but still that’s incredible growth. We grew during the recession, because we find a need, we fill a gap, we work to help people understand why we need their assistance and support, and people always, always, always step up to the plate. This community has been amazing all these years.

“That's very fulfilling and reassuring, and I'm really lucky that A, I have a great board that isn’t afraid of taking risks and setting out and doing the right thing, and B, I have an amazing staff, an absolutely amazing staff, who have the vision of what we're trying to do. They have hearts. This is not a job, this is truly what they love doing. And when you've got a group of people like that that you can work with, you know the sky's the limit.”

That unlimited vision has helped Easter create numerous programs to assist its clients, all of which, Beth said fall under four major program lines.

The largest of those program lines is family support, which also includes the respite care being provided through Megan’s House and a soon to be unveiled respite house for adults.

Family support is a broad category that serves children and adults with intellectual developmental disabilities and autism, with the goal of improving the quality of life for those individuals and their families.

Some of the things offered through that program line include financial assistance for therapeutic services, dental services, clothing and equipment, transportation, financial and life planning services, nutritional training, family support training, behavioral consultation and support, counseling and more.

“Family support serves the most people,” Beth said. “It serves well over 2,000 people a year, actually more than that. A part of that program is summer enrichment and we actually partner with over 30 organizations to include children and adults with disabilities in their regular activities. It may be the YMCA, it might be First Baptist Church, whoever it is, we do it.”

Another program line, Beth explained, is the community residential program which provides high quality living arrangements for clients.  

“We have some beautiful, gorgeous, community residential programs, group homes and supervised apartments,” she said. “We have some of the finest in the country and I say country because we’re nationally accredited. We received, for the last several years, the highest accreditation you can get.

“Our group homes, you can’t pick them out of a regular neighborhood,” she said. “They look like any other regular home. It’s a place that I would be happy with anybody in my family living in. We have staff 24/7 and they’re all certified nursing assistants, LPNs, RNs.”

Beth further shared that Easter Seals also offers programming under the employment/vocational umbrella, which she proudly explained helps prepare clients to become part of the work force and become an integral part of the community.

“Our employment program, or our vocational program, is now the oldest program,” she said. “It started in 1980 and it started as a workshop, in the back, which still operates. We have contracts with M&M Mars, with Protocol, with a number of other companies. We do packaging, and there’s just a variety of jobs that our folks with disabilities are engaged with. More so than that, we put people in jobs, we do specific job training.

“We actually help place people in jobs and not just any job. We try to do what you and I would do. We find, ‘what’s your interest?’ ‘What do you want to do?’ We put them there and we put in supports to make them successful.

“That is an incredibly successful program, and it really points to the ability, as opposed to, the disability that people have and how they can contribute, and give back to society.”

As Beth ran down the list of the many Easter Seals programs—including the Adult Day program which aims to get special needs individuals out of the home during the day for interaction and activities in the community and the Champions for Children program that exists as a partnership with the state’s four other Easter Seals offices—I was truly blown away by the level of excitement she had for what she is doing.

Time and again her love of Easter Seals and her love of helping those clients with disabilities shined through and it was awe inspiring. There is no denying she’s a person with a personal mission to truly impact the lives of others.

“I truly love it,” she said. “If I ever have a down day, if I'm ever feeling overwhelmed by some of the bureaucracy that we still have to deal with, I walk back there and watch our clients. I walk back there and watch people in our day program; I go visit Megan's House. I do something that puts me back in touch with why, the real why, and it's the people.

“It’s a wonderful blessing to have been a part of Easter Seals. I’ve grown. I’ve learned things I never would have learned and I’ve been able to do things I never would have done. I have no regrets, not one.

And judging by the success the organization has seen during her tenure, the nonprofit and the incredible people it serves have been equally blessed to have Beth English working on their behalf.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen