Sunday, February 5, 2023

How This Behavioral Analyst Who Helps Children With Autism Landed the SBA’s Highest Honor

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Entrepreneurs have a way of finding solutions and bringing them to the people who really need them.

That’s especially true of the Small Business Administration’s Small Business Person of the Year. Jill Rae Scarbro, the founder and CEO of the Winfield, West Virginia-based therapy and education center Bright Futures Learning Services, received the SBA’s top honor as part of its National Small Business Week, an annual week dedicated to celebrating the country’s small businesses and their owners. With its victory, the company gets a commemorative trophy and bragging rights.

The entrepreneur didn’t set out to win awards, however. Scarbro wanted to help children facing developmental challenges. Growing up in nearby Athens, West Virginia, Scarbro had dyslexia and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, which at the time was called attention deficit disorder. “My family got me specialized intervention at a young age, and that formed the trajectory of my life,” she says.

Scarbro knew early on that she wanted to dedicate her life to helping other children through behavior therapy. As an undergraduate in special education, she learned about applied behavior analysis (ABA), an effective therapy treatment for individuals with autism, backed by decades of peer-reviewed research, and eventually enrolled in the world’s first graduate program in behavior analysis at the University of North Texas. She opened a private practice in Texas after graduating in 2004, and two years later, moved back home to West Virginia with her then 6-month-old daughter. In 2007, she opened Bright Futures Learning Services, running what began as a “school for one” out of her grandmother’s kitchen.

“I was willing to go wherever I needed to get the best training because I knew how important it was that families were literally placing their children’s futures in our hands,” she says. “I always felt really strongly about kids here in West Virginia, like me, deserve the best.” 

Today, Bright Futures has about 40 employees and offers insurance-covered therapy for children with autism in three locations, all in southern West Virginia. Like most businesses, the company faced challenges during the pandemic–the closure of schools forced Scarbro to temporarily move one Bright Futures location out of the private school it was operating in to a summer camp instead, and out of safety precautions, the business had to operate on limited schedules when Covid rates were particularly high. Scarbro attributes her business’s survival to help from the SBA. Bright Futures landed both a Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loan and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan. She was able to keep her staff paid throughout the pandemic–including during a seven-week complete shutdown that started in March 2020.

That ability to ask for help and thrive amid change ultimately helped the SBA select Bright Futures for its top national honor, which goes to just one company each year. “Her small business is a valuable reminder of how much we rely on these brave entrepreneurs to give us the products and services we depend on every day. In the face of adversity during the pandemic, Jill worked with the SBA to get critical relief, pivot her business, retain her workers, and find new ways to provide needed services to her customers,” said SBA boss Isabel Guzman in a statement.

Of course, Scarbro credits her team with everything. “We don’t want to hire anybody who just wants a job to have a job,” she says. “We are working with vulnerable children, and we have an enormous responsibility to provide medically necessary, life-changing therapy.” All of Bright Futures’ founding team members, she says, are still with the company.

The mission of her business has helped Scarbro remain resilient, as well as continue to build the infrastructure that will allow Bright Futures to gradually take more kids off of its growing waitlist of “hundreds of families,” about 90 percent of which the business is unable to currently accept. West Virginia, she points out, has a drastic lack of access to applied behavior analysis because the state does not host its own training program; Scarbro says that less than 10 percent of kids in need have access to ABA in West Virginia. This has caused many parents of children with autism to leave the state–some of whom Scarbro herself has helped to find therapy outside of state lines. Through her business, her goal is to make sure these children in need get access to this therapy–without their families having to uproot their lives for it.

“I always joke around and say, I never wanted to be an entrepreneur, because I didn’t really know what that meant,” Scarbro says. “But listening to the descriptors of entrepreneurs in the SBA’s announcement today, I thought, ‘Oh, they’re just describing West Virginians.’ We are resilient and problem-solvers.”

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