Autism center no longer flying under the radar

April 17, 2019

WINFIELD, W.Va. — For years, Jill Scarbro-McLaury ran Bright Futures Learning Services in Winfield, West Virginia, with an intentional air of secrecy.

With limited resources, there are only a handful of facilities throughout the state that offer behavioral treatment programs for children with autism like BFLS does, leaving the facility with a “miles long” waiting list for parents looking to enroll their children.

“We tried to stay under the radar on purpose,” Scarbro-McLaury said. “We can’t help everyone, even though we want to.”

Those days of secrecy and people wandering into the building thinking it’s a day care instead of an applied behavioral analysis facility might be coming to an end, though, as Scarbro-McLaury and BFLS earn more and more attention.

Next month, Scarbro-McLaury will receive the West Virginia Woman-Owned Small Business of the Year Award for her work creating and expanding BFLS.

On Friday, an assortment of West Virginia politicians and representatives from various federal and local agencies met at BFLS to celebrate Scarbro-McLaury.

While honored by the award, Scarbro-McLaury doesn’t think of herself as a business person.

“My passion has always been about helping children and their families access the help they need. When I found out about the award, I remember just asking, ‘Why?’” Scarbro-McLaury said, laughing. “The irony is there are three things I avoid: politics, business and health insurance. Here I am, though, in a room with politicians, accepting a business award.”

BFLS opened its doors in 2011, aiming to provide children with autism one-on-one care with trained behavioral health experts. The first child helped by the facility was 3 years old at the time and is now about to finish third grade, with no need for support staff at school, Scarbro-McLaury said.

In the past eight years, the facility has grown immensely. It now employs 26 people, compared to the four it started with, and last year, after securing a 504 Small Business Administration loan through Peoples Bank and the Regional Development Funding Corp., BFLS moved into a new building that is double the size of its original.

The multistory home-turned-medical center features several offices and activity rooms, with different tools and toys for children across the autism spectrum. Sitting on 3 acres of land, there also is room for expansion.

The bigger space and more robust staff means that more children have been able to utilize BFLS’s amenities in recent years.

For Brandy Haid and her 5-year-old son, Garrett, the facility allows them to stay in Putnam County and get Garrett the treatment he needs without paying for private therapists or traveling out of state.

“It is a lifesaver. I can’t talk about all the (BFLS) has done for us or I’ll cry,” Haid said. “It’s a little community here with people in similar circumstances, and we’re incredibly grateful.”

Scarbro-McLaury said there are only about five facilities in West Virginia that offer the same type of therapy that BFLS does. Specialists in the field of applied behavioral analysis are expected to spend between 20 and 30 hours a week with patients, meaning it’s a time-intensive, sometimes all-consuming job.

Two families drive more than 70 miles, roughly an hour and a half, from Parkersburg, West Virginia, to Winfield each morning so their children may attend BFLS.

Scarbro-McLaury said this isn’t surprising, and the only thing that is going to change the dearth of resources for those in the state with autism is if lawmakers invest money to train and retain specialists.

On Friday, Scarbro-McLaury appealed to state politicians, including Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, to do just that.

“We can’t compete with other surrounding places when it comes to training and pay, and we need to, because the children here that need help are being failed when the people that could help them leave,” Scarbro-McLaury said.

Each day, Scarbro-McLaury answers at least one phone call from a parent looking for guidance after receiving an autism diagnosis for their child. It’s heartbreaking, she said, knowing there are so many out there desperate for help, but not enough places for them to receive it.

“I came here, I opened (BFLS) here, because these services need to be for the kids like me in West Virginia. It’s home, and I love it here, but there’s a lot of need,” Scarbro-McLaury said. “We’ve made the progress we have because West Virginia decided to invest in children with autism, and it paid off. We need to be sure we keep investing.”