Bob and RobinAnne Wills consider Apparo Academy a godsend for their daughter, Hampton.
“It is a wonderful environment for your child,” said RobinAnne Wills of the private, faith-based academy on Skinner Mill Road, which offers a unique approach of combining therapy with education for young children.
Hampton was premature and has a diagnosis of cerebral palsy, requiring different types of therapy. In her first year at Apparo she gained 21 months of language skills. Not only that, but she’s gained social skills and confidence, her mother said.
“She is a Mommy and Daddy’s girl. She has anxiety and does not like change, but every day, she is ready to go to school. She loves being there and wants to stay. If you met her years ago, you would’ve thought she’d never be able to leave home,” said RobinAnne Wills.
Apparo brings together preschool learning with vital speech, physical and occupational therapies for a developing child under one roof. There’s also a registered nurse on site.
It was through Hampton’s initial therapy that the Wills met Jennifer Jones, who started Apparo in 2019. Hampton was one of the first children at the center when it opened.
Jones has been a therapist for 30 years, running a preschool for deaf children through St. Joseph Hospital and providing therapy there early in her career. She also had an outpatient therapy practice.
Over the years, Jones grew frustrated as “Medicaid and insurance started dictating what children could receive for therapy,” she said.
In some cases, children were relegated to one 30-minute therapy session a week. If the child or therapist was sick or a conflict came up with the appointment, that time was never made up and that session lost.
“There are one million neural connections every second in children under the age of 3. Their brains are 90% developed by the age of 5,” she said. “Why are we not doing more when they are young —when we really have the capacity to change their trajectory in life instead of waiting to 7 or 8 and giving them 30 minutes of pull-out once a week? It’s not going to change anything. You can’t learn anything in 30 minutes a week.”
So, she took matters into her own hands. At first, she started providing extra therapy for free; then her brother suggested she form a non-profit. She did that about 15 years ago and started raising money to help pay for extra therapy sessions for children.
Around 2015, she said she felt God putting the school on her heart. She traveled to different schools with similar concepts, but none of them was run by a therapist.
At Apparo, children receive as much therapy as they need, regardless of insurance, and services are integrated with therapists and teachers working together. Speech therapists, for example, have keys to pull out language skills in children while reading a book, she said.
Apparo started in 2019 with three classrooms and 32 students. After raising $5 million in only five months, more classrooms were constructed. In September 2022, seven additional classrooms were opened to more than double the student population. In March, two more classrooms opened, bringing the number of students to 84. In August, the school will open its kindergarten – to the thrill of Hampton’s parents, who wonder what will happen once Hampton leaves Apparo.
Apparo has 16 therapists and 30 teachers on staff for 84 children. It serves children beginning at six weeks. Kindergarten will be the age cutoff. Jones said other services are available for children once they reach first grade.
But even with the added space and staff, that doesn’t meet the community needs.
“We have 40-something on the waiting list,” she said.
To help reach as many children as possible, an outpatient program is offered. Jones said they are in the process of hiring extra therapists for that.
Not all of the students have special needs. About 40% are developing typically.
Lee and Kristin Malchow put their two-year-old son, Michael in Apparo in August 2022 and are grateful for the inclusion aspect.
“It’s huge for our son Michael to be around typically developing kids,” said Lee Malchow, whose typically developing nephew also attends there. “It equals huge benefits for both of them.”
Another benefit for the Malchow family is that all services are located in one place.
Michael was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, cutting off oxygen to his brain and causing brain damage. His development at 2 is equivalent to that of a five-month-old.
“He needed PT, speech, OT. Each works on different things. Speech therapy is working on his swallowing and eating and trying to get him to eat more normal food. He doesn’t feed himself, but we’re seeing progress toward feeding himself,” Lee Malchow said.
Prior to Apparo, Michael was at Heritage Academy. Kristin Malchow is a schoolteacher, and after she’d get off work, she’d spend the rest of the day taking Michael to his different appointments.
Now, she doesn’t have to run herself ragged after a full day at work.
“They do it on site, at a time that works around his schedule. He gets more therapy there. Sometimes, he’ll get extra sessions. He gets a lot more treatment specialized to his needs,” he said.
For some parents, Apparo is the only center that has the ability to take their child and meet that child’s needs, which means a lot to working parents, Jones said.
“We’re able to provide a full day of care and get parents back into the work force; 70% are able to get back into the work force,” said Jones.
The United Way of the CSRA provides some funding to Apparo’s programs. At the annual meeting in February, one parent spoke about what Apparo has meant for her.
Liz Tyger had an emergency C-section in October 2019 with her daughter, Ruthie Tyger-Calia. Ruthie spent several weeks at the neonatal intensive care unit at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia.
“There was no other childcare center that would take her,” Tyger said at the February meeting. “She had a g-tube at the time as well as other developmental delays.”
But because of the care Ruthie received at Apparo Academy, “I was able to stay in the workforce,” Tyger said.
Not only that but Ruthie has thrived at Apparo exceeding her doctor’s expectations, she said.
Jones knows that the integrated approach at Apparo provides results.
“We’ve had a lot of children graduate from us who don’t need therapy anymore. If we can get them early enough and young enough, they won’t need those services,” she said.
Charmain Z. Brackett, the publisher of Augusta Good News, has covered Augusta’s news for 35 years. Reach her at email@example.com. Sign up for the newsletter here.
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