YEP-STL! Grant Recipient: Special Education Foundation

In his first week as Executive Director for the Special Education Foundation, Tim Eby learned first-hand about the impact of the organization. “There was an autistic student who was a toe walker and needed surgery to his Achilles tendon, but the hospital wouldn’t take him because he had bedbug bites,” says Eby, explaining that the student and his parents had been living in a rundown motel. “We were able to put them up in a clean hotel so that his sores could heal and he could have his surgery. It really moved me that we were able to make this happen for them.”

Established in 1984, the Special Education Foundation supports over 24,000 students with disabilities in St. Louis County – along with their families and teachers – in areas not supported by tax dollars. The Foundation is independent of the Special School District and receives no support from the government. A volunteer board of directors guides the organization.

“We were started by a group of parents looking for ways that the education system could better help students with disabilities by giving them the tools and opportunities they need to succeed,” says Eby. For the first 20 years, the organization was all volunteer run, with a board made up mostly of educators. That dynamic has evolved, he says, as has the scope of programs and services in order to keep up with the increase in developmental disabilities among children.

According to the CDC, autism now affects 1 in 36 children. “We see many students on the spectrum, but also those with Down syndrome, physical disabilities and emotional challenges,” says Eby. First and foremost, the organization is about enhancing the education of these students, and often that begins with ensuring critical needs are met in order to pave the way for meaningful engagement in education.

“Nearly 60% of our students qualify for the free and reduced lunch program, meaning their families often simply can’t afford the supplies, nutrition, adaptive equipment and other special needs of their child,” he says. The organization accepts grant applications for adaptive equipment and critical needs of families on an ongoing basis, which Eby says can be life changing. “One young man experienced sounds for the first time when we were able to fit him with a hearing aid. Today, he is earning his engineering degree from Michigan Tech!”

The Foundation recently received its own grant from YouthBridge for its critical needs program. Eby says the grant, through YouthBridge’s YEP-STL! program, helped fund food boxes for students and families during Spring Break, addressing food insecurity issues when students are out of school. “We’ve long admired the work that YouthBridge does to support donors and nonprofits and are honored to receive funding this year. I especially love the concept of the YEP (Youth Engaged in Philanthropy) and empowering young people to have an impact in the world.”

The Foundation has a similar goal with its Leadership Academy. Each year, about 20 students who show leadership potential participate in a year of training and civic involvement. “They learn about issues in the community, take trips to Jefferson City, hold charity fundraisers, and many of them take what they learn back to their schools and assume leadership positions,” says Eby. “It’s so much more than inclusion, but understanding the contributions that students with disabilities can make to their communities.”