In 1946, a small group of Los Angeles parents who had children with special needs couldn't find a good daycare program, so they decided to start their own.
Now 70 years later, the Exceptional Children’s Foundation has grown to 15 locations and serves 3,500 families — all for free.
"It looks like a little preschool that’s all fun and games and the children are having a wonderful time, but behind the scenes the staff is documenting the quality of movement, their language and what successes they’ve made that week," said Program Director Gabriela Kayacen.
The early start program caters to kids with developmental disabilities, something teacher’s aid Ana Kim knows well.
In 2001 her 5-month-old daughter Hannah suffered a stroke which left her severely impaired.
"It was hard. I tried not to think about the future," Kim said.
She was referred to the Exceptional Children's Foundation, where Hannah spent the next year and a half working with occupational therapists.
"Occupational therapy facilitates movement, feeding skills, sensory, it assists children with severe behaviors, children that may be on the autism spectrum," Kayacen said.
The staff built a bond with Kim and her daughter. Sadly, Hannah died shortly after her second birthday.
"When we heard the news that Hannah had passed, the staff were devastated. We all reached out to Ana and said we're here for you," Kayacen said.
Kim was lost without her daughter.
"Because I don't know what to do with my life after that," she said.
To help Kim heal from her grief, the staff suggested she volunteer at the preschool.
"She said that she would try, and then showed up one day to volunteer and I was thrilled," Kayacen said.
Her own personal experience made her a perfect fit for the unique program. She thrived helping other disabled children and eventually went back to school and became a teacher's aid.
The foundation has 15 schools in LA County, providing free services to children and adults with special needs, and empowering them to reach their full potential.
Seventy-five percent of the kids who go through the program go on to public schools.
"We've seen families whose children are now in college and they attribute a lot of that success to having a place where they feel safe," Kayacen said.
And Kim has found her stride as well, connecting with other children, giving back to the school that gave her so much and ensuring that Hannah's memory lives on.
The exceptional children's foundation is funded entirely through grants and donations. If you'd like to help, or you know someone who could use their services, visit the Exceptional Children’s Foundation website.