A local child development center has officially closed after more than 20 years of serving preschoolers with special needs.
The nonprofit Easterseals UCP Summer Moore Child Development Center, which has served more than 1,500 children, shut its doors in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic. But families of dozens of students learned two weeks ago that the developmental day program will not be reopening.
The announcement, made June 17, came as a surprise to parents like Jennifer Jackson, whose 2-year-old child has been attending for about a year.
“I just thought we were closed because there are so many kids out there that are medically fragile,” said Jackson, whose son, Wyatt, has Down syndrome. “I didn’t think much of it. I thought we’d be back open once things calmed down a little bit with COVID. I wasn’t expecting this.”
Kathy Edgerton, chief communications officer for Easterseals UCP North Carolina and Virginia, said COVID-19 is largely responsible for the decision, which she said was effective Tuesday. The center served children with special needs and typically developing children ages 5 and younger.
“COVID just hit us very hard as it does a lot of charitable organizations who are having to make tough decisions,” she said.
“It’s been really sad for us because Summer Moore has been an amazing partner and just a great center for us in that region,” Edgerton said. “Unfortunately, we had to make the very difficult and sad decision not to reopen.”
Most of the center’s 20-member staff has been furloughed during the pandemic. About half a dozen employees have continued to work, providing speech, occupational and physical therapy services in children’s homes or through telehealth. Edgerton said therapy services would continue through the summer.
Easterseals UCP, which once operated more than a dozen developmental day centers across the state, now has three, including Summer Moore, which is the smallest. Centers in Fayetteville and Wilmington, which remain closed due to coronavirus, are slated to reopen, but no dates have been set.
Edgerton said that while Easterseals UCP would like to utilize the Summer Moore center to serve children with disabilities, there are no plans to reopen the facility as a full-day child development center.
Although parents pay for their children to attend, Edgerton said Easterseals UCP has been subsidizing the center at an average rate of $200,000 per year for 15 years or more.
“Our expenses associated with COVID-19 have been so far greater than the funding, and with our financial losses, we just can’t sustain it,” she said. “We just know that we could not continue to run as a child development center in Greenville the way it has been.”
John Moore, the father of the center’s namesake, sees the decision to cease operations as short-sighted.
“It affects a lot of people, and the decision to close it, I don’t think it’s been thought out very well,” he said. “I think it’s a knee-jerk reaction.
“There are a lot of folks that are upset,” said Moore, who learned about changes when parents began contacting him. “It is the only (local) school of its type. It has a track record of doing incredible things, a track record of incredible success stories.”
In childhood, Moore’s daughter, who was born with spina bifida, attended a United Cerebral Palsy center that operated in the basement of Hooker Memorial Christian Church, which owns the property on which the center was later built. When Summer died at age 12 in 1991, her family requested memorial contributions be made to UCP. The center named in her memory was dedicated in 1998.
John Moore’s sister, Connie Moore Corey, said the original intent of the center was to serve children with developmental disabilities and their siblings, although it was later opened to other typically developing children.
Edgerton said about half of the 50 children most recently enrolled were those with developmental disabilities.
“What I would like to see is for the center to go back to its original roots,” Corey said. “I would like to see the center be opened as quickly as possible to accommodate children with developmental needs.”
Easterseals UCP estimates that to be able to operate Summer Moore as a child development center would require as much as $400,000 initially, with an additional $1 million needed to ensure sustainability.
Moore, a marketing specialist and radio and television personality who has helped to raise money for numerous organizations, said his family was not informed of the financial challenges until the pending closure was announced.
“My family has been involved with UCP for decades, and not until last week were we ever told of any shortfall,” he said. “They have never come to us and said we need to have a fundraiser for cerebral palsy because, if they did, I would have taken all my energy and all my resources and put it right there.
“This absolutely blindsided you out of nowhere,” said Moore, who is mayor of Farmville. “Why wouldn’t you want to keep it open? It serves a need.”
Jackson said families like hers do not have a comparable option for their children.
“The heartbreaking thing about all of it is there is not another center in our county or in Greenville that serves our children the way that this center did,” she said. “The other day care centers here just aren’t equipped to know what to do with special needs children.”
Jackson, a fifth-grade teacher at Wintergreen Intermediate School, said her son has thrived at Summer Moore, where she has seen gains in his verbal skills as well as positive interactions with other children.
“This is the foundation for our children, especially for children with special needs,” she said. “Early interventions are vital.”
Jackson and other parents have been vocal in their disapproval of the Easterseals UCP decision. Some have posted contact information for the state office on social media, asking supporters to make their opposition known.
Corey said donors, including some who have supported the Summer Moore center since 1991, have offered to make financial contributions if the gifts could be used to help the facility to reopen.
“My heart says there are means to open this center back for children with developmental needs,” she said. “We just need the direction and the green light (from Easterseals UCP).”
Edgerton said she has been directing fundraising inquiries to Easterseals UCP’s development team.
“We’re not going to stop anybody from trying to save something if they can do that,” she said. “We want them to be able to have the opportunity to do that. It’s just we can no longer subsidize that.
“We do want to reopen Summer Moore because we realize there’s a need there,” Edgerton said. “We’re certainly determined to serve children with special needs and their families, but it’s going to have to be in new ways.”