Written by The Business Journal Staff
Fresno-based nonprofit EPU Children’s Center celebrated its 40-year anniversary with an open house on Oct. 12.
Founded in 1976, EPU, known as Exceptional Parents Unlimited at its inception, was initially created to provide a support group for parents of children born with Down syndrome.
The organization quickly grew to include services for parents of children with a variety or disabilities and services for the children themselves.
Today, EPU reaches 950 kids and their families each week through its six distinct but related programs.
At the heart of EPU is its family resource center, which provides parent-to-parent support, parent support groups, information about special needs, assistance in locating and accessing services and training on how parents can become effective advocates for their children.
“The family resource center is one of six critical community programs that we run, and that program is actually our biggest footprint as we now cover 13 counties in Central California for parent resources and information,” Kathleen Price, EPU Chief Development Officer, said. “We are one of six national centers of excellence for parent training and information so that is where we started and is still core to what we do.”
Also available for parents is the Learning About Parenting program. Price said what is unique about this program is that most parents who participate don’t have a child with a disability. Instead, the parents themselves are the ones facing challenges, including poverty, drug abuse and domestic violence.
“In 1982 we created this program in response to seeing so many babies born cocaine addicted because we knew at that point there were parents here we needed to address and train,” Price said. “These parents are in different educational classes like financial literacy classes, parenting classes and hygiene classes. Ninety-seven percent of these parents have children with no genetic issues, but they are the children in our population who are at the highest risk for abuse and neglect.”
The remaining four EPU programs serve children with disabilities. For parents bringing their children to EPU, the first stop is often the assessment center, where medical and mental health professionals conduct in-depth assessments of children birth to age five, to determine their specific needs. The assessment center, Price said, is ideal for families with multiple concerns about their child’s learning, development, socialization and behavior.
In addition to the assessment center, EPU offers the Infant Family program and the Play and Grow program.
The Infant Family program assists infants and toddlers through age three who have delayed development, identified disabilities or serious medical conditions that affect development. Therapists work one-on-one with these children to enhance their abilities and parents are also trained on how to interact with their child from observing therapy sessions. The types of therapy offered at EPU include speech therapy, physical therapy and therapy for kids with optic nerve damage or who are blind.
The Play and Grow program brings all EPU children together in inclusive, developmentally appropriate playgrounds and classrooms where parents and children participate in interactive play and each child works on individual developmental goals relating to socialization, language development and early literacy skills.
Last but not least, EPU is in charge of the call center One Call For Kids, the hotline for people to call when they have a concern about the learning, development, socialization or behavior of children from birth to five.
“It’s a Fresno County wide hotline so anyone who has a concern for the health, safety or wellbeing of a child can call,” Price said. “It is trilingual and we have an online assessment that we do with the family to determine the state of need from that call. From there we bring them into our assessment center across the street to determine the needs of that family and create an individual family service plan. Every family is different and every child is different and it all starts for us with understanding the needs of the child within the family around them.”
While EPU has evolved immensely since the day nine mothers huddled together in a closet-sized room for a parent-to-parent support group, Price said the nonprofit’s mission has remained the same: to strengthen and empower children and families facing extraordinary medical, developmental and parenting challenges. That mission, she said, would not be possible without community support.
“All of our services are no charge to the families so we really rely on the community’s support. Without the friends and donors and foundations that support us, we could never do what we do in transforming the community,” Price said. “When you think about an agency turning 40 and seeing almost 1,000 kids a week for the first five years of life and setting them up for the best possible consequences, strengthening their families, educating and empowering then, that is a deep community impact,” she said.