When a child is born with a disability or develops one after an accident or illness, parents often feel overwhelmed, a sense of helplessness, and heartbreak.
Not everyone can understand what these parents and extended family members go through when they care for disabled children, and it can be isolating. But a group in Bakersfield has understood for over 60 years.
Since 1947, our community has been home to the Society for Disabled Children, an organization dedicated to providing resources for physically and communicatively challenged children and their families in a variety of ways. Today, the work this organization does year after year for the children in our community is nothing short of astounding and yet so few in our area are aware of its presence.
“The Society was formed in ‘47 to help meet the needs of those with polio and other disabilities regardless of the ability to pay,” explained Ashley Thompson with the Society. “The work of the Society is based upon a community tradition of voluntary service, where concerned persons combine their efforts to solve human problems.” It was five Kern County Rotary Clubs, the Kern County Shrine Club, and the Kern County Chapter of the National Foundation of Infantile Paralysis that formed the organization, originally called the Society for Crippled Children and Adults.
Thompson explained, “We were affiliated with another organization in the first few years but made the decision to split and stand-alone due to the fact that funds raised were being sent out and were not being used to help those in Kern County.”
By 1975, one of the more recognizable parts of the Society was formed: Camp Blue Jay. The summer camp was created to provide activities, including sailing and even horseback riding, for over 50 disabled local children each year.
“This program focuses on developing confidence, independence, and social skills. The parents of the campers experience an additional benefit of the camp program: they are provided an opportunity to relax and recharge their energy level while their children are in a secure environment.”
It was after moving to a larger facility in 1996 that the Society was able to expand its services and grow to meet the needs of the community and in 2002, it changed its name to the name we know today to better reflect the services it provides.
“Today the Society serves over 1,000 clients in our community with speech and language therapy programs, medical equipment loans, transportation aid to out of town medical facilities, and social activities, and refers over 250 clients to other agencies,” Thompson said.
Speech therapy is something many children with physical and mental disabilities struggle with, so the Society provides low-cost speech therapy sessions staffed by licensed speech pathologists to preschool and school age children who are unable to obtain speech therapy through the local public school districts or who need additional assistance.
There’s also STAR, a program which offers students in grades K-6th who are struggling in school an opportunity to grow academically in a safe, fun, and nurturing environment.
Then there’s the sometimes expensive medical equipment needed to care for a child with a physical disability. Through the Society, families can request these essential medical supplies or other necessary items that can assist their child in reaching greater functionality.
As Thompson added, the Society also helps with gas money or bus tickets for parents and children to visit out-of-town doctors and hospitals.
Perhaps the most important services provided by the Society are the social activities.
They encourage special needs children to overcome social difficulties, direct their energies toward positive social goals, and reduce inappropriate behavior patterns to promote successful social interaction.
“Occasionally we are able to offer the families other kinds of outings to enjoy with their children, like the visit to the Condors game on the night of the teddy bear toss,” Thompson explained. “The bears are actually brought back to our facility to be organized and distributed out to various organizations and they are used as part of the Christmas gifts at our annual party. Some of our clients were able to throw stuffed animals that night and it was a real treat.”
That’s certainly how Maria Esculara would describe the Society. For the last five years, she’s been benefitting greatly from its programs, which have helped her son Jose.
“I needed someone to help me with his reading and comprehension,” Esculara said. Jose thankfully wasn’t born with a physical disability but was becoming so hyperactive that his mental well-being was suffering. His focus was gone, he was falling behind in school.
“I think that’s something people in Bakersfield don’t realize,” she explained. “The Society helps with all kinds of problems, not just physical disabilities.”
Another thing? “The Society was offering these services at no or low cost and I was able to get certain payments covered through scholarships…that’s something people assume, too, that they will charge a lot for what they do. That’s not the case.”
The Escularas attended ice cream nights, movie nights, Easter and Christmas parties, and other family events. They’ve even been able to go to Legoland, a Dodgers game, and many a Condors game. “It’s really special for these kids. They’re growing together.”
For Esculara, she hopes that more families will realize the Society is here for them. It’s not exclusive to certain types of disabilities.
“It’s such a community. No one is judgmental, no one is different. All children are treated the same; it’s what I love about it. And Jose doesn’t see differences in the kids, either. They’re all his friends. He’s learning to be so caring toward everyone he meets.”
“We do hear ‘I didn’t even know about this place’ from a lot of people,” Thompson added. “And it comes with the territory when you are a small nonprofit. We are our own entity serving only Kern County. There are many worthy causes in Bakersfield that serve those with disabilities and we love those organizations and hope to partner with them in the future.”
Some of the organizations they do work with often, however, rally around this nonprofit year after year.
“The Bakersfield Car Club Council are our biggest supporters and they have hosted the Super Cruise Car Show which has benefitted us for the past twenty years. The funds raised by the Car Club support Camp Blue Jay and we are so thankful to have their support. Last year every child that went to camp did so at no cost to the families because of the success of the Super Cruise Car Show. Our support comes directly from the community that we serve. We do not receive any state or federal funding. Every year we hold our Easter Basket Eggstravaganza, golf tournament, and we hold bunco games quarterly. Those funds help support the operations of the Society but do not fully cover what is needed to sustain our programs. Rather than cut programs we have drawn down reserves to fund those areas.”
That’s because there will always be children in need of these services.
“The generosity of our community goes back to its roots and I believe that we have that same want within us to help others less fortunate than ourselves. When we help a child that needs glasses or when a child who is struggling with speech improves with our therapists, we are helping the future generations of this town. If you don’t have a child or relative with a disability, your neighbor might, or a co-worker, someone from church, or the person in line at the grocery store.”
If you want to help, Thompson explained that funds and volunteers are always appreciated since they operate on a small budget with a small staff. They are in need of board games for the children, children’s books, adaptive play equipment, and also stamps so they can mail out information to families. Also, they are hoping to have an aluminum or wrought iron fence installed around the building so that they can begin work on an adaptive garden project in a secure area for the kids.
“That would be a dream come true,” Thompson added.
For more information, visit www.societyfdc.com or call (661) 322-5595.
Builders of Confidence.