By Darlene Donloe
In 1946, a group of concerned parents and community activists pooled their resources to create a day training program as an alternative to institutional care for children and adults with developmental disabilities.
They called the organization the Exceptional Children’s Foundation (ECF) and over its 76-year history, it has evolved into a nationally recognized organization serving more than 5,000 people with developmental disabilities and their families annually from 15 program sites, in homes and in communities across Los Angeles County.
The foundation is reportedly the only organization of its kind in California to provide a lifespan of services for children and adults challenged with developmental, learning, and emotional barriers — empowering them to reach their greatest potential.
For 23 years, Scott D. Bowling has led the Exceptional Children’s Foundation as its president and CEO. He’s only the second president in the organization’s history.
One of the reasons Bowling wanted to join the foundation is because he has always been fascinated with human behavior. He changed his major at Virginia Commonwealth University from business to psychology because he wanted to learn about himself. He went on to earn a master’s degree in psychology at Pepperdine and received a doctorate in psychology from Ryokan College.
That decision served him well.
“I wanted to serve a population with disabilities,” said Bowling, a Fredericksburg, Virginia native. “I saw the ways they had abilities that eluded many of us. They have unconditional love. I want to continue to educate the world about all they can give the world.”
The mission of the Exceptional Children’s Foundation is to provide the highest quality services for children and adults who are challenged with developmental, learning, and emotional barriers — empowering them to reach their greatest potential.
The foundation envisions a society in which people of all abilities are valued and included in educational, social, employment and residential settings.
Since leading the organization, Bowling, 56, has welcomed the addition of the organization’s K-12 Kayne Eras School, fully accredited by the Accrediting Commission for Schools, Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
The Kayne Eras Center, a comprehensive educational and therapeutic service center for children with special needs and their families, offers a general education curriculum for diploma-track and college-bound students as well as an alternate curriculum track for students requiring a modified educational program.
At the school, students ranging in age from 5 to 22 find help developing the social, intellectual and emotional skills they need to learn to achieve their fullest potential.
The Kayne Eras School has an integrative team approach and has a reading lab, enrichment program, vocational training, authentic learning and a continuum of services.
As a program operated by the Exceptional Children’s Foundation, students and graduates 22 years of age and older receive access to career training, job placement and supported living environments. Those services are typically provided to students with regional center funding.
Qualified students from the Kayne Eras School and their families may also benefit from community mental health services available to ages 3 to 25 in a home setting (typically funded through Medi-Cal).
“It has positioned us uniquely,” Bowling said. “We can walk through the life of a child with a developmental disability. We can touch their life and change their trajectory at every stage of their life.”
Bowling, 56, said what clicked with him was growing up in Virginia the child of parents who divorced when he was 3.
“I learned by watching the two of them — the importance of the early life and how it affects your trajectory forward,” Bowling said. “My father grew up in a stable family. It was solid with lots of love and good values.
“My mother was a foster child who went from foster family to foster family. Her foundation was not as strong. She wasn’t as surefooted. Seeing it, I saw the importance of a solid early start. The first early years are so formative. That’s what clicked in me.”
The Exceptional Children’s Foundation’s Early Start program provides early intervention and educational services for children from birth to age 3 who are developmentally delayed or disabled, as well as support for their families.
The organization serves children challenged with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, intellectual disabilities, speech and language impairments, traumatic brain injuries and many other disabilities or delays.
Early Start provides center-based education for both children with special needs and typically developing children in either a traditional preschool classroom or a parent and child classroom (Mommy-N-Me), as well as home-based education.
The foundation’s adult program provides adults with special needs with an array of programs and services to help them reach their personal, residential and employment goals.
Programs are designed to help guide participants along pathways to employment and include accelerated preparation programs, work readiness, exceptional packaging solutions, exceptional training academy, college classroom program, computer numerical control, machinist skills training, independent pathways programs and exceptional employment solutions.
There is also an art centers program, which provides fine arts training, a developmental activity center that provides opportunities for participants to strengthen independence, social skills and self-determination, all with respect for each person’s ability level.
The Exceptional Community Connections offers meaningful volunteer opportunities where clients can participate in meeting diverse community needs while integrating into the community. The individual pathways program provides in-depth transitional plans for adults, particularly young adults, to help them access community resources and gain more training and skill development to enter the job market, or engage in community volunteering, while the residential services program provides housing, life skills training and support for adult clients.
When Bowling became the president and CEO of the foundation at 33, he was “shocked to get the opportunity, but wanted to give the organization my all.”
“I’ve always been a consensus builder,” he said. “Together, with community partners and input from who we serve, and agencies, we are able to find out what the needs are. How can we have the greatest impact?
“We have a three-year strategic plan,” he added. “Every three years we renew the plans. We keep building on the foundation we have built. We have a $28 million operating budget. The impact is impossible to measure. It’s not quantifiable.”
Bowling believes the Exceptional Children’s Foundation is “motivating because of love.”
“It’s about the love of a parent and of the like-minded people who have a love for people who learn differently,” he said. “These same people share a value of inclusion. Everybody has a role to play in society and can make a contribution to the home.
“When the world understands that, it will be more harmonious. Its mission is really that. We just happen to focus on disabilities. The foundation is devoted to people who learn differently. We want to empower them to access the talent that’s within.”
The foundation offers a number of therapeutic services, housed at the Kayne Eras School, including behavior therapy, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, education therapy and a mental health program.
When it comes to the disabled, Bowling believes “there are things people just don’t know.”
“Some people don’t know about the abilities they have,” he said. “It’s human nature to categorize. The generations have placed them in a box with limitations. It’s our job to educate the individual and the community.”
After three decades with the Exceptional Children’s Foundation, Bowling is proud of the children and adults his organization serves, the staff and community partners, and what the organization has become.
“I’m endlessly amazed at the profound impact the people we serve have on me,” he said. “I can get so into my own head and that can be paralyzing. There is always so much to do.
“If I read a success story, or walk our halls and receive that smile and a, ‘hello doctor or Mr. President, or Scotty.’ I get it all. It’s all empowering to me. It makes me want to do more. It gets me out of bed.
“I’m so proud that after 76 years, we still have a magnetic quality that attracts. When I think about the impact we make, I’m the lucky one.”
“Making a Difference” is a weekly feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to email@example.com.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.