ESP embarks on a historic new journey in Rome

Tuesday, January 30, 2024–11:38 a.m.

-David Crowder, WRGA News-

ESP Rome photo

In a unanimous vote, The Floyd County Commission recently approved a special use permit for the former church at 1818 Kingston Highway, which will become the new Rome campus for Extra Special People.

ESP provides support and services for developmentally and intellectually disabled people and their families.

According to attorney Sid Wright, the permit will allow ESP to repurpose the church, the outbuildings, and the grounds by renovating the existing building for corporate offices, restrooms, a gymnasium, activity rooms, meeting areas, and recreational spaces.

“There is also a concession and commissary for Java Joy at the site,” he added. “The near-term plans include building an accessible playground and walking areas, a baseball/softball field, and an amphitheater for ESP events.”

Cade Dempsey told commissioners what she loves most about ESP.

“The activities, all the friends I’ve made, and how the participants are celebrated,” she said.

According to ESP CEO Laura Hope Whitaker, the playground will be universally designed, and open to the public, meaning kids will be able to engage with people with disabilities.

“Research shows that if there is no barrier to a child’s play to interact with someone different from them, not only will they include people with disabilities on that playground, they are statistically shown to continue to include kids of all abilities throughout their lives,” she said. “That is the impact of our project. It’s not just about individuals with disabilities and their families, but about changing Rome for the better.”

You can read more about Extra Special People in the news release below.

Extra Special People, Inc. (ESP), was overwhelmed with the unanimous support of the Floyd County Board of Commissioners who approved the File SUP24-01-04 special use permit for an Extra Special People campus located at 1818 Kingston Highway, Rome, GA. This marks the beginning of an extraordinary journey for the organization and the local community. 

ESP Rome began with Gaines and Amy Dempsey and their hearts for their daughter Cade, and her friends to experience what over 900 individuals with disabilities in Northeast Georgia experience every day: the magic of Extra Special People. What began with their employment program, Java Joy, has grown to after-school programming at Rome First United Methodist Church, and one then two weeks of summer camp at Georgia Highlands College. As programs have grown, so has the need for permanent space. ESP camp was bursting at the scenes with a waitlist. 

It wasn’t until Cordell, a Rome ESP participant and Joyrista, shared his dream, that the organization got to work. Cordell visited the Berry campus for the first time for a Java Joy event and upon arriving and seeing the beautiful castle-like buildings and students his age enjoying life among them, he said, “ESP needs our castle!” Not long after that, ESP went under contract with 1818 Kingston Rd. in Rome Georgia to begin building the dream. 

SP Rome has a long journey ahead of them and will need the community to join the journey. The site in Athens pictured hosts 20,000 sq. ft of program space, a ballfield, and a universally accessible playground open to the public where all kids can play together. The organization has a dream that the same type of vision can become reality in Rome. 

“As we embark on this dream, we invite you to join us every step of the way. Today’s approval is just the first milestone in a series of exciting steps along the way. Our vision for the property at 1818 Kingston Highway is not only ambitious but also deeply aligned with the needs and aspirations of our community in Rome, GA,” says Laura Hope Whitaker, CEO of ESP. 

“We are committed to keeping our community informed and involved. We are so thankful for the unanimous support we have seen thus far. It proves that a dream like this is needed in Rome, Ga. Together, we can make a significant impact to make our beloved community even better.” Hollye Smith, ESP Rome Chairwoman. 

To ensure you don’t miss out on any updates or milestones, the organization has a dedicated newsletter at as the go-to source for all the latest news, progress reports, and opportunities to get involved with ESP Rome’s journey. 

About ESP 

ESP was founded in 1986 when Martha Wyllie, ESP’s founder, noticed an unequal number of opportunities for children with disabilities and began the first one-week summer camp for 21 participants. Programs began taking place in community gathering spaces until they could open their own gym five years later in Watkinsville, Georgia. For two decades, ESP conducted their programs there with the number of participants growing every year. When Wyllie passed away in 2004, she left behind a growing legacy; and Laura Hope Whitaker, now CEO, stepped into the role of executive director at age 19. ESP identified the need for family support and year-round programming and created the ESP 360 program. Through Java Joy, ESP expanded into Atlanta and Rome, Georgia in 2020. Now, ESP provides all three of its programs in Rome: Java Joy, 360 Programming, and Hooray Camp. ESP’s board and leadership team have developed a 10-year strategic plan that envisions ESP being a nationally recognized leader in transforming communities in multiple states through programs for people with all abilities. 

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