Easter Seals UCP Stepping Stones Center will close

Oct. 30, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

A local child care center dedicated to children with special needs is set to close in less than a month.

Dec. 1 is the last day for the Easter Seals United Cerebral Palsy Stepping Stones Center, located at 1550 Kelly Drive, after nearly 20 years of serving children with and without special needs. The decision to close the center was complex and difficult to make, Easter Seals UCP Chief Communications Officer Jeff Smith said, but the organization could no longer "sustain the significant and ever-increasing subsidies required to operate the center."

He would not say if any of the other eight centers across the state will also be closed, but said it had become "increasingly difficult to develop sustainable business models for small centers."

The Sanford location, which opened in 1995, serves 24 children and has 11 employees. Stepping Stones Program Manager Turkeshia McCormick referred questions to the Easter Seals UCP communication department, but said her staff has notified parents about the closure.

"I just mainly want to thank the community for their support during the time we have been open but also during this transition," McCormick said. "The community has been so supportive, past and present families. It's a shame future families won't be able to use our services, but we are hoping the agency can work something out."

Samantha Wilson's 6-year-old daughter Taylor, who has characteristics of autism, attended Stepping Stones before she entered kindergarten, and her 2-year-old son Ryan, who does not have special needs, currently attends the center.

"It's very disheartening and sad," Wilson said. "When I was told last week, my eyes watered up. The resources in Sanford are limited, and I wouldn't have known what to do if they hadn't been there to help with my daughter."

Erin Beasley's 12-year-old son Cole, who has Down syndrome, attended the child care center and she said the news of Stepping Stones's closure broke her heart.

"There is no other center in Lee County geared toward children with special needs," she said. "Cole grew and learned a lot more than if he had been in another program because of the therapy and extra attention he got from staff."

As a young parent with a baby with special needs, Beasley said Stepping Stones stepped in to help and offer assistance until Cole could be enrolled at the facility. Stepping Stones will leave a void for special needs children, and Beasley said she hopes other child care centers will be able to address those children's needs.

"Lee County, as a community, needs to make sure (those services are) provided for families who have special needs children," she said.

Brooklyn Wester had identical twin boys, Ryan and Reece, who have special needs and also attended the facility.

"I don't want them to shut down," she said. "I do not want to see this happen."

Wester lives in Harnett County but works in Lee County, and said it gave her comfort to know her boys were close by in case an emergency arose. The center serves children in Lee, Harnett, Chatham and Johnston counties. 

The center's staff is working to identify other places children could attend, Smith said, but he would not say if the staff will be moved to another Easter Seals UCP facility. 

"It has been a privilege to serve the many children and families who have attended this center," Smith said. "We care deeply about this community and we will continue to explore sustainable opportunities that deliver quality outcomes for children, families and adults managing disabilities and mental health challenges in this region."

Easter Seals UCP will continue to offer other services in the area, he said, including adult mental health and crisis services, residential supports, access to camp, durable medical equipment and information and referral services, he said.