When Jill Scarbro-McLaury was in the first grade, an observant teacher changed her life. The teacher recognized Jill had a learning disability. Now Jill makes it her business to change the lives of other children with learning disabilities.
In 2007, she founded Bright Futures Learning Services to provide behavioral treatment for children with autism. In 2019, Jill was chosen the SBA’s West Virginia Woman-Owned Small Business of the Year.
Pursuing effective therapy for autistic children
Jill attended Marshall University to study special education. While there, she met a family creating an in-home Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) program for their autistic son Mike. Autism is a neurological condition that affects areas such as communication and social skills.
“I fell in love with Mike, a young boy with multiple challenges,” Jill said. “Mike’s intensive ABA program helped him make dramatic progress, gaining skills that would allow him to read, play and communicate.”
Jill moved to Texas to enroll at the University of North Texas, the nation’s first graduate program to earn accreditation from the Association for Behavior Analysis. After receiving her Master of Science in Behavior Analysis, Jill moved back to West Virginia, resumed working for Mike’s family and traveled the state to consult with schools. By then, Mike was in public school, but facing difficulties.
“The only way we could give him what he needed was to create it ourselves,” she said.
Bright Futures started as a school with a staff of three and a student body of one.
“We literally started in my grandmother’s kitchen,” Jill said.
Advocating change through legislation
Although research shows Applied Behavior Analysis is the gold standard for effective autism treatment, funding sources were nearly non-existent. Most schools refused to provide ABA services. Parents of autistic children had to file lawsuits to get ABA services for their children in public schools. No legislation required ABA therapy. The state had few Board Certified Behavior Analysts and few families could afford to pay for private services on their own.
That is when a core of West Virginia professionals and parents with autistic children formed the Mountaineer Autism Project.
“Getting Mediciad to cover ABA has been a continuous fight for the past six years,” Jill said. “We made great progress in 2018. As of Sept. 1, 2018, West Virginia Medicaid policy now explicitly provides requirements for ABA coverage. We’re working on implementation barriers, but this is huge progress.”
Expanding services with SBA 504 Loan
In 2012, Bright Futures opened a clinic in a strip mall in Hurricane and eventually spread to three spaces in three buildings. The expanded clinic enabled Bright Futures to enhance its services to include medical as well as educational services.
“Children with autism often don’t have the foundation skills necessary to learn,” she said. “ABA programs systematically build the foundation for all learning by helping children acquire the ability to attend to people and their environment, imitate, communicate and use language as both a listener and a speaker. These skills have to be obtained before they’re able to acquire more traditional educational skills. Skills like learning how to act within a group and learning how to read and write.”
Before long, Bright Futures was looking for more space that could be fitted to the specific needs of the children and their parents. A local bank told Jill about the U.S. Small Business Administration 504 loan. This long-term, low-interest loan helps small businesses pay for buildings, equipment or similar assets needed to help them grow.
Bright Futures bought a house at auction in Winfield, financed with an SBA 504 loan. The house sits near Route 35, convenient for families who travel long distances for treatment. The clinic contains 14 individual therapy rooms, a group room, a custom-built playground and two sensory-based play rooms with colorful drawings on the walls, fiber optics, black lights, trampolines and motor toys.
“For parents who arrive here devastated by a scary diagnosis for their children, it feels like a home, a sanctuary,” Jill said.
WV SBDC local resources
The Executive Director of the Regional Development Funding Corporation in Pittsburgh, who administers the SBA’s 504 program in West Virginia, directed Bright Futures to additional local resources, including the West Virginia Small Business Development Center (WV SBDC). SBDC Business Coach Doug Spaulding is working with Bright Futures in strategic areas that will help the business grow.
He also nominated Bright Futures for the SBA’s West Virginia Woman-Owned Small Business Award, to be presented May 8 in Fairmont during the national 2019 Small Business Week.
Doug’s nomination described Bright Futures as a company that has more than “11 years of staying power and has grown from a one-woman show to a million-dollar company with 25 employees who work tirelessly to improve the lives of vulnerable children. Bright Futures also serves as a training facility for young professionals and has helped West Virginia’s population of certified ABA providers grow from 17 in 2011 to 65.”
Training future practitioners
The Center for Disease Control’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network estimates that 1 in 59 children in the U.S. has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder. The need outstrips the supply of trained practitioners across the country.
One source for entry-level training in West Virginia is Bright Futures.
Bright Futures’ staff currently includes three Board Certified Behavior Analysts with masters’ degrees, three Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts with bachelor’s degrees, an office manager and a supply administer. The remainder of the staff are paraprofessional Registered Behavior Technicians.
Bright Futures has trained all but one of its own technicians. Training, instead of hiring from an available certified workforce, slows business growth and creates a backlog of demand. Bright Futures currently has a waiting list of more than 150 clients.
“We could ramp up the number of clients we serve and grow our business, but not without sacrificing training,” said Jill. “My passion isn’t about being a business person but about helping children.”
Jill reviewed the advantages of ABA therapy:
- It can change children’s lives and put them on a trajectory for success.
- Children who have had long term intensive therapy need less support at school, which can reduce costs by 2/3 over the individual’s lifespan.
- Training ABA practitioners creates jobs and helps develop the infrastructure for the industry.
- Providing services helps to keep families in West Virginia, instead of forcing them to move elsewhere to get services for their child.
“Investing in services for a child with autism is good for everyone,” she said.
Video of SBA officials visit to Bright Futures Learning Center during Autism Awareness Month, April 2019, available here.