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Daniela Conroy, president of Extra Special People at UGA poses for a photo with ESP participants Adnan and Ruthie at Tailgate in Athens, Georgia on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. The AEO Foundation and Tailgate presented ESP with a donation of $5,000. (Photo/Taylor Gerlach)

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Watkinsville’s Extra Special People nonprofit has developed new initiatives to connect with and support the 600 families they serve: creating an emergency support fund, online programming and a way to support Java Joy’s employees.

The coronavirus pandemic brings changes to the lives of those with disabilities and their caregivers, according to a press release from the organization. Many children with disabilities are immunocompromised and families are unable to leave the house without compromising the health of their child. Even a trip to the grocery store could risk an immunocompromised child’s life, according to the release.

One of the first responses ESP had to the outbreak was creating an emergency support fund for families. Before the coronavirus outbreak, ESP never provided this sort of service, according to the fund’s webpage. However, Executive Director Laura Whitaker said the fund was crucial to support families during this time. After coordinating with ESP staff to call all their families, Whitaker and her team realized how necessary creating the fund was.

“Within 24 hours, it was so evident that our families were struggling in ways we never even comprehended,” Whitaker said.

Whitaker said many caregivers are out of work and having to choose between paying rent and buying medication for their children.

Since creating the fund, Whitaker said ESP has been able to help pay bills and provide medication and groceries. ESP is also preparing to deliver 2,000 meals to families, Whitaker said.

There are many ways students can help the organization outside of donating money, including taking part in a “call with a camp counselor” program, which allows ESP participants to connect with others during a time of isolation, Whitaker said. Students in Athens could also help with grocery delivery, along with sharing ESP’s posts on social media to spread the word.

In addition to creating the Emergency Family Support Fund, ESP has also been hosting daily Facebook live sessions at 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. The morning session features a guided, at-home activity, such as yoga, that allows ESP participants to stay connected and fight off social distancing boredom. The 5:00 p.m. session, hosted by ESP team members Peter Cates and Tyler King, is a news-style broadcast that brings entertainment and information to isolated families.

ESP’s initiative Java Joy, which is for ESP participants over 21, allows people with disabilities to serve as baristas, or as Java Joy calls them, Joyristas. Java Joy has suspended operations because of coronavirus, but supporters can still buy $2 personalized video messages from the Joyristas to support Java Joy’s operations.

Whitaker said ESP has yet to make a decision about its annual summer camp, currently scheduled for the first week of June. Describing the camp as ESP’s “flagship program,” Whitaker said ESP hopes to not have to modify their plans. Although ESP has yet to determine the fate of this summer’s program, Whitaker said the organization are preparing to provide more camp scholarships for participants.

“Families are struggling financially more than they ever have,” Whitaker said. “We know that we are going to have to be prepared to provide financial support for many of them.”

Despite the uncertainty of what lies ahead, Whitaker remains hopeful.

“It’s been really beautiful,” Whitaker said. “That in such an uncertain and scary time [we can help] families with such big needs.”

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