Jean Willers, the visionary special education teacher who founded Challenged Child and Friends, died this week after an extended illness, the school, now called Sisu, announced Friday.
The idea for the school began as a way for Willers to help her neighbor’s son, Randy Owens. Willers created a classroom in her home, invited Owens to attend and worked to accommodate his educational and social development.
In the early 1980s, First Baptist Church on Green Street provided classroom space to allow Willers to serve more families and expand her services. In 1985, the organization incorporated as a nonprofit, offering educational, nursing, and family support services in addition to physical, occupational and speech therapy. In 1992, Challenged Child and Friends expanded to become a fully inclusive program serving children with disabilities alongside their typically developing peers.
As the school grew, Willers wanted to return to her role as an occupational therapist, so she brought in Cathy Drerup to administer the school.
“Jean literally was a mentor, teacher and role model for families, staff and volunteers, passionately seeking positive outcomes through heartfelt teamwork,” Drerup said. “She was truly an amazing woman. She knew how to connect the dots from research to practical services and family support. The whole concept was not to just treat the child and their disability, but to holistically engage as a partner with the families.”
In 2017, Challenge Child rebranded as Sisu, and in 2019, the school served 283 students from 13 counties across North Georgia.
Today, the organization’ mission remains unchanged as it continues to serve children through innovative educational, therapeutic, nursing, and family support services in an inclusive environment.
Willers’ daughters, Suzanne Hlavacek and Jennifer Gottsman, continue to play a role in the organization today. Hlavacek is an occupational therapist for Hall County and serves children in the Sisu setting. Gottsman, a pediatrician, serves tirelessly on Sisu’s board of directors. Her husband, Dr. Don Willers, actively supported his wife’s work, too.
“My mom was love,” said Gottsman. “Her love for children knew no bounds, and she shared that passion with us.”
A group of professionals in Augusta recently opened the doors to a Sisu-like school after shadowing, researching, and following Willers’ vision.
“Jean’s vision is still viewed as groundbreaking, said Jamie Reynolds, Sisu’s current executive director. “This incredible school and its incredible mission catch the attention and hearts of all who visit. The Apparo Academy in Augusta is asking questions and realizing the enormity of the progressive and necessary services and community for this unique type of school. The obstacles and hurdles for starting and maintaining a school for over thirty years is a testament to Jean and our incredible, philanthropic community. Jean’s revolutionary thinking put Gainesville on the map in the world of early education.
A celebration of life will be held to honor Jean Willers on Saturday, October 12, 2019 at 2 p.m. at First Presbyterian Church, 800 S. Enota Dr NE, Gainesville, GA 30501.