Parents who know how difficult it is to get therapy for their special needs children are helping to fill the gap with two centers they've opened in Gilbert over the past year.
The new centers have helped dozens of parents get off long waiting lists. They're both founded by parents who want to ensure that their kids, and other area kids, get the services they need.
The need is so great that Carrie Reed of Queen Creek is already expanding Lauren's Institute for Education, which opened last summer in south Gilbert at Queen Creek and Higley roads and serves more than 250 children with 80 therapists.
"We did it because we felt the community had stepped up and helped our daughter, gave her a chance at a new life," Reed said. "We wanted to give back and help other kids. We tried to do a one-stop shop, so kids can get all their needs met under one roof."
The institute is named in honor of her 7-year-old daughter, Lauren, who received an experimental stem cell transplant to treat Sanfilippo's syndrome. Lauren receives physical, occupational, music and other kinds of therapy at the center.
The idea of the center, founded by Reed and Lauren's habilitator, Margaret Travillion, was to bring therapies closer to Gilbert-area children who before had to drive as far as Scottsdale for services. The center also was designed to provide multiple therapies in one location, rather than having parents make appointments at multiple centers elsewhere.
"Lauren was sitting on waiting lists." Reed said. "She couldn't get the services she needed. It was very personal with us to do something to help."
Ann and Jacob Zuniga of Gilbert opened a similar center in December and are already serving dozens of kids at the Circle of Support they founded in north Gilbert at Lindsay and Elliot roads.
They adopted son Jaron, almost 7 years old, from Mozambique five years ago, and found themselves also struggling to find services, especially in the Gilbert vicinity. Jaron has cerebral palsy.
The center is newer, and is still looking for therapists and children to serve, Ann Zuniga said. It's about 25 percent full.
"When he started full-time school, we needed to go center-based, and there wasn't a whole lot in our area," Zuniga said. "We just saw there was a need." The Circle of Support also offers a variety of therapies, including occupational, physical and music, at the same location. Jacob Zuniga operates a dental office next door.
"Eventually we would like to expand to other services for the family and for the kids," Ann Zuniga said. "We really would like to do things like special needs camps and things like that."
On Wednesday, Jaron worked on his balance and his muscles, leaping on a trampoline in the colorful physical therapy room, and later pulling a pretend "car" as he walked backward.
It's hard work for the kids - who also want to just have fun like any other kids, and it helps to have one place where they feel safe, said Mary Sutton, a physical therapist who worked with Jaron.
"There's a huge need, lots of people waiting for therapy that they can't get in," she said.
Both centers operate through contracts with the state, but also take private donations for additional services they offer that the state doesn't cover. They also can provide home therapies. Kids are treated for autism, cerebral palsy and a variety of developmental needs.
Lauren's Institute recently began to offer classes in a private school for special needs children, and will expand to the first and second grades next school year. It also offers unique rooms featuring lights, sounds and textures meant to teach kids cause and effect, and to calm. Reed said she also hopes to open a branch in the West Valley, where she said there are also few resources.
And work is under way to open a larger physical therapy room as the center expands into a second, nearly 7,000-square-foot facility next door.
On Wednesday, parents at Lauren's Institute said they were thrilled to have a therapy center so close to their homes. Jeff Mitchell of Gilbert said he used to have to drive his son Jaden, 2, to Scottsdale for his therapy.
"We used to have to travel to different places," he said. "Now it's one place, and it's close."
Danielle Rodriguez of Gilbert said it makes a big difference when parents are establishing the centers, and as nonprofits. And it helps that therapists can communicate with each other about the children, she said, as she watched daughter Marissa. Marissa, who is autistic, was playing with lights in the center's calming room following a music therapy session.
"She understands where we are coming from," Rodriguez said of Carrie Reed.
The state doesn't track waiting lists for physical, occupational and other therapy needs for children.
But Becky Hancock, the child resource and referral coordinator for the Tempe-based Association for Supportive Child Care, said there have been long waiting lists for therapies for individual child needs for decades, and therapists are often scarce.
"There tends to be a shortage of professionally trained early childhood specialists," she said. "These parents face an amazing challenge to try to find what their children need. I really respect that they're creating these services on their own. There is demand for it."