Campus News

Laura Hope Whitaker redefines diversity

Laura Hope Whitaker is the chief executive officer of Extra Special People Inc. and co-founder of Java Joy. (Photo by Chamberlain Smith/UGA)

Fulfilling the Dream Award winner strives to build inclusive communities

Laura Hope Whitaker looks at diversity a little differently.

As chief executive officer of Extra Special People Inc. and co-founder of Java Joy, she creates transformative experiences for people with disabilities and their families, changing communities for the better.

“Disability always needs to be included in the diversity conversation, and we’re not doing ourselves justice if it isn’t,” she said. “Disability crosses every economic background and every race. It is a melting pot of people, and because of that, I, as a person, have been able to see life through different perspectives. My life, and now my children’s lives, are so much more enriched because of that.”

Her work to create more inclusive communities was recognized recently with the President’s Fulfilling the Dream Award. Presented at the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Breakfast, the award recognizes students, faculty, staff and community members who exemplify the words and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

ESP was founded in 1986 by Martha Wyllie, who noticed an unequal number of opportunities for children with disabilities. It began as one week of summer camp for 21 participants. Now, ESP serves more than 900 participants in more than 30 Georgia counties and includes eight weeks of summer camp, annual after-school enrichment programs and ongoing family support. ESP serves participants beginning at birth and with no upper age limit, welcoming participants with diagnoses of cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, traumatic brain injury, spina bifida and more.

Whitaker started volunteering at ESP as a student at UGA. She was just 19 when she was named camp director after Wyllie’s passing. Since then, she’s worked to expand ESP’s vision of a world where every person of every ability in every community has universal access to transformative experiences.

“I think one of the beautiful things about starting at a young age is that I really didn’t know what I didn’t know, and that turned out to be one of the greatest lessons for me in stepping forward in faith,” she said. “Taking over ESP truly was the next right thing for me to do.”

Laura Hope Whitaker, left, presents alongside participant and actress Lily Moore at ESP’s Big Hearts Talent Show at Athens Church. (Photo by Chamberlain Smith/UGA)

Whitaker grew up volunteering with her family in Cobb County, and those experiences shaped her continuing desire to help others. She said that she and her family often had people at the dinner table who didn’t look like them, and her parents regularly served on nonprofit boards.

“That’s what drew me to ESP—this is the goodness I experienced when I was volunteering as a kid. It’s authentic, it’s diverse, and it’s balanced,” she said.

ESP started just serving people with disabilities but has expanded far beyond that initial role. For example, its site in Watkinsville houses a universal playground, where any child of any ability can play with other children. That’s important because, according to Whitaker, research shows that when a child plays with children with disabilities, that child is much more likely to include someone who is different from them in other areas.

In 2022, ESP continued to break down physical and social barriers for those with different abilities with the opening of its Miracle League field. This allows teams of all abilities to play baseball on custom-designed, rubberized turf fields.

In 2016, ESP launched Java Joy, a mobile coffee cart that gives meaningful employment to adults with disabilities. Whitaker said it’s teaching customers and leadership teams what it looks like to employ adults with disabilities. Now, there are 72 joyristas, and the program has expanded as far as San Francisco.

“It’s all about seeing the ability in people. It is seeing the person’s ability before you see what is different in them,” she said. “Having this team of people—I don’t take that for granted.”

Whitaker also gives back by mentoring other women and supporting their visions. She’s participated in several leadership programs and volunteers regularly with her church.

“If I can help others, particularly women, avoid half the mistakes I’ve made, then I have an obligation to pour back into them in the way people have poured into me,” she said.

ESP provides a community for the people it serves, Whitaker said, and that’s why the organization’s work is important. And as ESP continues to expand to other cities, it will continue to educate those communities on how to be good stewards and neighbors of people with different abilities.

“It’s really about the people we serve,” she said. “That is what makes life and relationships and love rich, when you have people around you who have different perspectives you get to learn from.”