(Media release from Darlington School):

Laura Whitaker, executive director of Extra Special People, will be the inaugural speaker in the Darlington School Leadership Institute Speaker Series on Thursday, March 17, at 9:15 a.m. in Morris Chapel. Her presentation will be live streamed on YouTube

“I am thrilled that Laura has agreed to be our first speaker in this series,” said Head of School Brent Bell. “She is a leader in every sense of the word, and her passion, empathy, and desire to make positive change is inspiring.”

Founded in 1986 in Watkinsville, Ga., Extra Special People Inc. aims to create a community of support for individuals of all abilities. ESP’s founder, Martha Wyllie, noticed an unequal amount of opportunities for children with disabilities, and started begin ESP as one-week of summer camp for only 21 participants. Since the organization’s humble beginning, it have grown to now serve over 500 participants from over 30 counties in Georgia through eight weeks of summer camps, annual after school enrichment programs, and ongoing family support. 

Whitaker began her relationship with Extra Special People Inc. by working as a counselor and, subsequently, a leadership team member in 2003. After Wyllie’s sudden passing in 2004, she was named executive director of ESP at the age of 19. As such, Whitaker uses her leadership and management strengths to manage staff, oversee multiple year-round programs and raise funds. She says her favorite part of the job is getting to hug the many children who walk through the ESP doors.

ESP serves participants beginning at birth and with no upper age limit, welcoming those with diagnoses of cerebral palsy, down syndrome, autism, traumatic brain injury, spina bifida, and many more. Their specialized programs enable participants to thrive with swimming, dancing, arts and crafts and cooking; family support, retreats, dinners, counseling, and holiday events. This summer, two weeks of summer camp programming for participants 4-18 will take place right here in Rome. 

Whitaker holds a B.Ed. in Collaborative Special Education and M.Ed. in Adapted Curriculum Classic Autism from the University of Georgia. She has apeared in “40 Under 40” lists published by the Atlanta Business Chronicle, the UGA Alumni Association, the Athens Banner Herald and Georgia Trend. She has also received the Athens Banner Herald’s Super Citizen Award, Rotary Club of Oconee County’s Community Four-Way Test Award, the Oconee County Chamber of Commerce’s Volunteer of the Year Award, and was recognized as one of UGA’s top-growing business leaders (No.12 out of the Bulldog 100).

Whitaker is a graduate of L.E.A.D. Athens Class of 2012 and has served as a United Way of NEGA board member, a North Oconee Rotarian, an Oconee Civitan and member of the Junior League of Athens. She is now involved with the L.E.A.D. Athens Steering Committee, Leadership Georgia and Classic City Church.

She and her husband, Joseph, have three children, Owen Patrick, Finley Gray and Tate Alan. 

Click here to watch the live stream of Whitaker’s presentation on March 17.