2009 Forward under 40 Award Honoree
UW Major: Communicative Disorders
Age: 34 | Lewis Center, OH
Director, Helping Hands Center
"The question for me should not be 'How has your [UW] experience made an impact on your life?' but instead 'How has [it] NOT made an impact on your life?'"
Abigail David's work with special-needs children took the road less traveled.
In fact, her current nonprofit therapy and education center started, quite literally, on the road, but it wasn't the career path she initially intended.
"I started at UW wanting to be an occupational therapist," she says, "but when I took a class called Communicative Disorders 101 my freshman year, I became fascinated with the subject."
During her junior year, she joined the Wisconsin Early Autism Program as a lead therapist, working with three families over four years who had children with varying degrees of severity of autism. She began producing results in a short time.
"We saw unbelievable progress," says David. "One of my clients was initially non-compliant and non-verbal, but after only a few months of therapy, she began talking and communicating with her siblings, parents, and therapists. She was eventually integrated back into her home school with peers her same age."
Her work with the program played an important part in helping her gain admittance into the UW's competitive communicative disorders master's program, and she eventually graduated with a master's in the field, focusing on speech language pathology with a specialization in autism. She began her professional career working with children with autism in Ohio's public school system. But due to a heavy caseload, she was not able to give the students the attention and care she felt they deserved, and she began seeing clients in their homes after her normal work hours.
"I was able to focus my attention on children with autism, my love and specialty, for one to two hours a week," she says. "Due to word of mouth, and a lack of resources available to parents to help their children diagnosed with autism, I began receiving numerous calls to service children in their homes and formed my first company, Kid Talk, Inc."
Kid Talk was David's start-up company, aimed at serving children with special needs in a more in-depth and involved manner in their homes. Therapy materials in the backseat, David's SUV served as Kid Talk's headquarters for two years as she drove from house to house on a full-time basis.
"I knew I was making a difference in these children's lives because the parents and I were seeing positive improvements every week," she says.
Working with therapists from a variety of disciplines, David built on her progress, eventually hooking up with music therapist Erin Nealy. Wanting to accomplish even more, the two expanded their companies into Helping Hands Center for Special Needs in 2005.
The center provides collaborative and integrated therapy and educational services directly to individuals with disabilities and their families. Students experience a variety of different classroom models, from intensive, individualized, one-on-one instruction to small groups. Beginning with 18 students and 15 staff members in 2005, the nonprofit has now grown to 60 employees serving 70 students in its preschool through 5th-grade classrooms. The center also provides care to children from more than 150 families on a weekly basis.
When not in the classroom, Abigail is busy taking care of her triplet boys with her husband, Scott '95, and she credits the UW with playing an instrumental role in much of her life.
"The question for me should not be 'How has your University of Wisconsin experience made an impact on your life?'," she says, "but instead 'How has your University of Wisconsin experience NOT made an impact on your life?' All the major accomplishments in my life have either been directly or indirectly related to my experiences at the University of Wisconsin."