With a heart for special-needs youth, Heather Barboza, a former Blue Valley special education teacher, has opened a new world of hope and possibility for these children and their families in the Kansas City area.
Barboza opened the doors Feb. 24 to Emma’s Place, the first therapeutic childcare center in the United States designed specifically for special-needs children.
“Parents of special needs children will know they finally have a place for their children,” said Barboza, the founder and director of Emma’s Place. “Families will know they have a place to come that understands them and will meet their children’s needs.”
And Barboza understands these needs very well. She has spent a lifetime working with special needs youth, starting as a volunteer when she was 9 years old.
Her passion for these students continued with nearly two decades teaching special education in public schools.
The idea for Emma’s Place actually was kindled by a phone call from a former student’s parent, Enid Dodson, in 2016. Her daughter, Emma Dodson, has Down syndrome and became the namesake for Emma’s Place.
“Emma had been at a traditional daycare and they said they’d tried their best but couldn’t accommodate her anymore,” Enid said. “Every year, year in and year out, was stressful and hard to find daycare for Emma.”
Barboza was well aware of the obstacles Dodson and countless other parents face to find daycare for their special-needs children. After Dodson’s distressed phone call, she started exploring the idea of opening her own special-needs daycare.
“The more research I did, the more obvious it became that the need was there,” Barboza said. “... This type of care model has been a long time in the making, and something our families need. When I heard the challenges from my students’ parents, I realized our community needed to provide this type of support.”
As Barboza explored making Emma’s Place a reality, she realized that it was a groundbreaking venture in many respects.
“In her research, she looked for a comparable model across the United States and didn’t find a single daycare purpose-built for students with special needs,” Barboza’s husband, Paul, said. “This is the first one. That is the amazing part. Many daycare facilities will accept those with special needs, but we didn’t find one specifically designed for those with special needs.”
While researching the idea, Heather took a business development course at Johnson County Community College. After finishing the course, she made the commitment to go forward with Emma’s Place and obtained a Small Business Administration loan to fund the project.
“With a lifetime of experience, Heather had a very clear vision about this daycare,” Paul said. “She knew what every room needed to be like.”
Emma’s Place is designed with two sensory rooms, a kitchen that focuses on healthy diets, a medical room, a multi-purpose room, a computer café, a movement studio, and a library. The center offers art, music, and yoga therapy in addition to assistance with homework and computer skills.
Students also can receive life and social skills instruction, speech and occupational therapies, an individual education plan consultation, and other support.
The center serves students from 5 to 18 years old, including those with special medical needs. The student-to-staff ratio is 5-to-1 and all staff are required to have prior experience teaching special-needs students. Several instructors have advanced degrees in special education.
Instructors also will receive ongoing training with Barboza and other licensed professionals in a wide variety of related ﬁelds.
Although the facility can accommodate 50 students, the enrollment goal is around 40, Paul Barboza said. Families can register for full-time or drop-in care, depending on their needs and their child’s school schedule.
Programs at Emma’s Place are personalized and custom-directed, based on each child’s need after the staff meets one-on-one with parents.
“Each child will have a program plan,” Heather Barboza said. “Each and every activity will be about how we can help them develop.”
That impressed Enid Dodson.
“Not only do they care for the children here, but they help them grow,” she said. “They’re not just in a holding pattern. These kids are growing when they’re at Emma’s Place.”
Along with the after-school program, the daycare will be open during holiday breaks, other days when school is out, and during the summer. They also offer respite care for parents on weeknights and weekends.
Despite being located in Overland Park, parents from across the metro have enrolled their children, including two families already from Lee’s Summit.
“We not only want to be a therapeutic childcare facility, but we have the goal of becoming a community resource across the metro for families with special needs children,” said Isleen Gimenez, attorney and assistant director for Emma’s Place.
Gimenez also has three children with exceptionalities that require special attention.
“We want to put them in touch with resources and support to help them navigate the challenges of the special needs world,” she said.
It’s potentially a godsend for parents of children with special needs.
“The whole world needs to know about this,” Enid Dodson said. “It seems society is wanting to learn about our kids and include them. For so long, our children were the forgotten population. People didn’t want to bother with them, unless you had an angel like Heather Barboza.
“Now, society is starting to see these kids have needs and also recognize what they do for us. They have so much to offer. My friends across the country are amazed at what we have in Kansas City now for special needs. Maybe Emma’s Place can be a model for the world.”
Emma’s Place is located at 12635 Hemlock in Overland Park. For more information, includinghow to enroll a student, visit https://emmasplacekc.com/ or call 913-940-9401.