Media Coverage

The latest feature articles on the vital work of Hidden Wings!

A List of Articles Included Below:

Noozhawk, “Hidden Wings provides young people with autism a place to soar,” August 14, 2013
Santa Barbara News-Press, “Hidden Wings helps students soar,” June 14, 2013
EdHat Santa Barbara, “Non-Profit of the Week: Hidden Wings,” April 6, 2013
Santa Ynez Valley Journal, “Art Exhibit to feature students,” March 21, 2013
Santa Barbara News-Press, “Hidden Wings Lands A Home,” June 15, 2012
Santa Ynez Valley Journal, “Wings Home Takes Flight In Solvang,” June 21-27, 2012
Santa Ynez Valley News, “Drum Maker, Grateful Dead Player Helping Local Students,” May 22, 2012
Santa Barbara News-Press, Celebrating the one-year anniversary of Hidden Wings, June 16, 2011
Santa Barbara News-Press, “Group Wants To Create College For Those With Autism,” May 23, 2010
Santa Barbara News-Press, “The Growth and Expansion of Hidden Wings”
Featured on the front page of the Santa Barbara News Press (2009-03-23)
Hidden Wings Student Crowned Homecoming King!

Hidden Wings – Non-Profit of the Month (April 2013, EdHat Santa Barbara)

Hidden Wings is a non-profit 501(c)3 corporation dedicated to nurturing the gifts of young adults with autism so that they might have full and productive lives in society.

Most high school graduates with autism are ill-prepared to face the challenges of the world. Hidden Wings is pioneering the development of a post-secondary school, a unique college specifically designed for those on the autistic spectrum.

The school is dedicated to the belief that everyone on the autistic spectrum possesses “Hidden Wings,” which are extraordinary gifts often masked by social limitations. Its programs emphasize:

– rigorous exercise
– a predictable, loving environment
– intellectual stimulation based upon the unique gifts of every student

The goal is not the remediation of deficits but the cultivation of individual talents.

Hidden Wings is funded by private donations and receives no government funding. All of its programs and courses are available tuition-free. Your contributions are tax deductible, and we deeply appreciate your support.

Hidden Wings was established in 2009 by the Rev. James and Dr. Julia Billington, both honors graduates of Harvard University with decades of combined experience in the Episcopal Ministry, business, and medicine.

Based in California’s Santa Ynez Valley, our Board of Directors and advisors includes a special needs lawyer, a CPA, a special education teacher, a transition specialist, a child psychiatrist, the world’s most renowned expert on Savant Syndrome, a prominent businessman, and a pediatrician.

We invite you to join us in this exciting adventure to unfurl the gifts of autism.

Text reprinted from EdHat Santa Barbara, updated April 6, 2013

A New Home for Hidden Wings:

School helps young people with forms of autism.

By Nora K. Wallace, News Press Staff Writer

As it celebrates its second anniversary as a haven for young people with autism, “Hidden Wings” has landed a home in Solvang.

The school without walls in the Santa Ynez Valley was created by the Rev. James H. Billington Jr. and his wife, Dr. Julia Billington, as a place where young people with forms of autism who are moving from high school to adulthood can learn life skills and socialize in an accepting environment.

After two years without a solid base, the nonprofit program now has a home at 517 Atterdag Road in Solvang. An open house will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. today.

“We’ve had all the spokes, but we haven’t had a hub,” said the Rev. Billington.

Having a location in downtown Solvang will help socialize many of the eight to 15 students who participate in the tuition-free Hidden Wings curriculum, the Harvard graduate said.

“The effect is centering on them,” he said. “There’s the predictability of coming, with rooms designed to be modular so things can be moved around. The advantage of having it downtown, they get to be part of the real world.”

Kevin Hosseini, a student who has become a successful artist, painted canvases for the interior. A parent whose child attends programs did all the landscaping outside.

Also on display will be computers, since Google made Hidden Wings one of its “test sites” for its Project Spectrum three-dimensional modeling program called “SketchUp,” which is found to be appealing to people with autism.

The move was possible in large part due to a significant grant from venture capitalist William K. Bowes Jr. The Rev. Billington said Mr. Bowes believes Hidden Wings can be a model for other programs nationally.

The grant funding hopefully will be a springboard for launching a capital campaign for a permanent residence, the Rev. Billington said.

At Hidden Wings, young people have access to programs that include drum circles, ocean kayaking, computer classes, hiking, life skills and yoga.

Two of the Billingtons’ four sons have been diagnosed with autism, and the program sprung from the couple’s concern about a lack of higher education or vocational training for such children.

Molly Ballantine’s 24-year-old son, J.J., is a Hidden Wings student.

“It has been a life saver for him and us in so many ways,” she said. “He’s made friends and enthusiastically looks forward to being a part of every activity offered,” including hiking and kayaking.

She believes it’s important for people to be aware of what the program offers and “how critical the need is for more programs in communities everywhere, as our young children with autism are quickly becoming adults with autism.”

Solvang resident Robb Kennedy, a swimmer and coach, is in charge of the day-to-day operations and outdoor adventures at the school. UCSB acting teacher Annie Torsiglieri instructs the students in her craft. Others teach art, computers or other classes and skills.

One of the main fixtures in the new schoolhouse is the 40-inch diameter drum, which the Rev. Billington uses as a therapy for the students.

The drum was designed and built by drum master Remo Belli, and the Rev. Billington was able to obtain it through his association with Mickey Hart, the former drummer for the Grateful Dead.

Mr. Hart created a program to use drums and other music primarily for people with dementia.

“Hidden Wings provides professional music therapy to people suffering from autism,” he said in a statement. “This extraordinary program helps to prepare children and adults to navigate the world. Rhythm is about life and life is about rhythm. By using drums as a therapy to finding the inner music of autism, Hidden Wings has become a leader in the field.”

The Rev. Billington is hopeful that, now that Hidden Wings is located in the busy downtown of Solvang, people will begin noticing the students and work accomplished there.

“The advantage of having it downtown, they get to be part of the real world,” he said. “Expression, communication, are all improved the more interaction you have with this small town. It’s also a safe haven. It’s really more like a home.”

Hidden Wings Home Takes Flight

Wings Home Takes Flight in Solvang

Hidden Wings – which bills itself as a school and “place of hope” for young people with autism – recently celebrated its second anniversary by moving into its first real home.

After two years of meeting in various places throughout the Valley, the non-profit moved into a building at 517 Atterdag Road in Solvang and held an open house on June 15 to show off its new digs.

“We’re attempting to build community,” said Jim Billington, who created the organization with his wife, Julia.

The Billingtons, who have two autistic sons, originally founded Hidden Wings to help young adults with autism transition into life after high school.

“In society, the passion for autism is for cute babies,” Jim Billington said. “Once they get out of high school, there is a tremendously diminished amount of interest.”

The Hidden Wings curriculum provides several activities for its members, including therapeutic horseback riding, music therapy, kayaking, hiking, art, yoga and Pilates. All of the activities are meant to activate the senses and build a sense of socialization, Billington said.

Having an actual home now, according to Billington, only adds to that sense of community.

“By locating here, we’re in a community where we can be neighbors,” he said. “Our goal now is to develop their skills.”

Added Aimee Carroll, who coordinates the music programs:  “It’s great to have a central location. We’ll still be drumming and kayaking and whatnot at Lake Cachuma and everywhere, but it’s a great meeting spot.”

– Report by Willis Jacobson

A Community Member’s Response to ‘Wings Home Takes Flight’

June 28, 2012Letters to the Editor, The Santa Ynez Valley Journal, regarding Hidden Wings

I am writing in praise of your recent feature of the Hidden Wings facility (June 21-27, Valley Journal) in Solvang.

As a mother of a child with autism, it was with great delight that I received your weekly paper in our mailbox with our dear friend/comrade and aide J.J. Ballentine on the cover!

Our family has been confronted with autism since 2007 when our son, Luciano, was diagnosed at the age of 2 and a half. What ensued post-diagnosis was hour after hour of intense behavioral and speech therapy. The light of our days was his 45 minutes a week spent at the SYV Therapeutic Riding Academy where an alternative form of therapy was offered for our son, a therapy that allowed him to be free, spontaneous, in charge – unlike any other part of his day to day living. In the last year or so we have been able to welcome J.J. into our weekly schedule: a young man, diagnosed with autism. J.J. is a survivor. As a mother of a young son, I have lived for these weekly encounters where I can see there is hope, a light at the end of the tunnel. J.J. is an example of just that. A child who experienced an alternative education, therapy and assistance his entire life and he now thrives, is incredibly social and is one of the best people to understand my young son’s issues.

I am so incredibly grateful to hear that there are forward thinking individuals in our Valley that understand that as our children get older, the services they receive will fade and we will need a place for them to think, explore, learn, [and] grow. Hidden Wings sounds like just the place we will be searching for [for] our son.

Thank you for featuring a facility that is so close to our hearts and focuses on the heart of our town:  its people. I am relieved to see that we still place value on the human spirit. Thank you, SYV Journal. I am hopeful once again!

Amy Koers Curti, mother, teacher, community member

Sharing the gifts of Remo Belli & Mickey Hart with Hidden Wings:

Staff Report

Remo Belli, founder of Remo Drum company, delivered a custom “drum table” May 4 to Santa Ynez Valley Family School as a donation for Hidden Wings, a program for autistic young adults.  

The specialized drum table is designed to produce a bandwidth that simulates a heartbeat, which creates a connection to people with autism, the school said. Belli joined in a drum circle with Hidden Wings and Family School students.

Family School is a private preschool through fifth-grade campus on Figueroa Mountain Road.

Belli invented the modern synthetic drumhead and opened up drumming to generations of bands from the 1950s to today. His close association with Mickey Hart, former drummer for the Grateful Dead, and their shared interest in the therapeutic benefits of hand drumming, brought them together in their support of Hidden Wings.

Rev. Jim Billington and Julia Billington, the founders of Hidden Wings, were at Family School to meet Belli and accept the drum.

Julianne Tullis-Thompson, head of school for Family School, welcomed them to the preschool garden area, where the drum was presented and the whole school was gathered.

The drum, 40 inches in diameter, was made with a special drumhead to produce lower-pitched sounds with a second layer to muffle the sound, so it isn’t too loud, Belli said. The drum can also be tuned to achieve just the right tone.

“This is a one-of-a-kind. If it works, there will be more,” Belli said.

Hidden Wings has worked closely with Aimee Carroll, the music and drama specialist at Family School, and Hart to develop the specialized drumming program. Hart’s long association with Belli led all four partners to work together to design a drum that would best suit the needs of people on the autistic spectrum.

Students in each grade from Family School took turns drumming together on the table drum while the rest of the students, faculty and parents joined in on various percussion instruments.

Belli lead the fifth-grade class in a pattern based on the phrase “pass the popcorn” and demonstrated the ability of the drum to bounce various objects into the air when hit.

People with autism can be sensitive to excessive sound and activity, so Hidden Wings members had their turn drumming with Belli after the Family School children were dismissed.

“The Family School’s partnership with Hidden Wings is a natural fit with our commitment to help each child reach their full potential. We are happy to share our resources with Hidden Wings and support this innovative program in any way we can,” Tullis-Thompson said.

Carroll has worked with Hidden Wings since it began. She recently completed training with international leaders in drumming and its affects on learning, healing and community. She is one of few in the nation to be certified as a drum circle facilitator.

Mickey Hart, a pioneer in therapeutic uses of drumming, worked with Billington for two years before choosing Hidden Wings and the Santa Ynez Valley for his first pilot program for drumming with autistic people. Like Belli’s drum, the pilot project is the first of its kind.

“SYV Family School has been the ideal partner for Hidden Wings in this venture,” Billington said.

“The beauty of the Family School, the enthusiasm of the students, and the loving spirit of the community provide a fantastic welcoming ground for people who are often the subject of stigma. Since Hidden Wings focuses on young adults, whom society has largely abandoned, a welcoming place is like an oasis in the desert.”

Celebrating the one-year anniversary of Hidden Wings:

    A typical college course catalog does not necessarily include yoga, ocean kayaking, advanced horse grooming and drum circles as its top-level curriculum. But, for the year-old Hidden Wings School in Santa Ynez, those courses — coupled with life skills instruction, computer classes, academic tutoring and outdoor adventuring — form a critical lifeline for young people on the autistic spectrum who are transitioning from high school to adulthood.
The self-described “school without walls” is a nonprofit endeavor created by residents the Rev. James H. Billington Jr. and his wife, Dr. Julia Billington. Two of their four sons have been diagnosed as being within the “autism spectrum” and they grew concerned about the lack of higher education or vocational training for such children.
The couple created an eclectic program designed to foster the students’ interests and talents, while also instilling critical life skills and trying to reverse the often sedentary life of autistic youth. “We puzzle many of the professionals, because we don’t have a formula,” Rev. Billington said. “We want the kids to have a life, so we beg, borrow and steal from any source.”
  They hope to educate people that autism “is not a deficiency of intellect,” but instead is a syndrome marked by language problems and social interaction issues. “One of the things is finding the gift within each child,” Rev. Billington said about the program. “But first you have to realize the child is a gift.”

    From 3:30 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Hidden Wings will mark its first anniversary with an art show at the Solvang Library, 1745 Mission Drive. The work of several of its students will be on display and for sale. The students will also do some drumming and show off food-making efforts from life skills class.

    For the past year, Hidden Wings has enrolled 10 students. They have been able to employ many well-known instructors in the Santa Ynez Valley. Cynthia Devine teaches art, Robb Kennedy is an expert kayaker and search and rescue officer who helps with water classes. Musician Gary Foshee teaches the students guitar and Aimee Carrol manages the drum circle. Julie Samuels-Metheany bends and stretches the youngsters in yoga and pilates. Judy Bates instructs in life skills and Dyann Driggers teaches language and math. Kim Blades guides the students through horse care at the Santa Ynez Therapeutic Horseback riding center.
Mrs. Samuels-Metheany has never worked with autistic people and says she finds it “really inspiring,” because she sees the teens responding more to her directly. “I literally have left here in tears of joy,” said Mrs. Samuels-Metheany, of Bloom Yoga in Solvang.
For those on the autism spectrum, having nontraditional outlets and courses is critical, Rev. Billington said. One example, he said, is a new drum circle, with drums paid for through a grant from the Solvang-based Vikings Charities Inc. “A drum circle allows them to realize their voice is not discordant or uncontrollable, but they can communicate through creating a sound that is in harmony with other sounds,” he said.
By her own admission, 21-year-old Katrina Gutierrez spent much of her time at home, watching television or helping with the care of a now deceased grandmother, before enrolling at Hidden Wings School. Her mother Julie Gutierrez, who knew Dr. Billington professionally, heard about Hidden Wings and asked her daughter if she was interested. “I said I’d try a couple classes,” Katrina said. “I don’t know what made me say that.” Now, Katrina is enrolled in yoga, life skills, art, swimming, hiking and guitar. She is looking for a job and has a number of friends. “It was time to do something besides TV,” said Katrina. “I’m really happy with it. It’s meant I can get more mature with my life, more responsible. I can handle things more, take care of myself.”
Katrina, her mother said, is high-functioning autistic, but self-isolates and has no concept of numbers and time — making it difficult to be self-sufficient. The job training is essential, Ms. Gutierrez said, because she hasn’t been able to find any program like that for her daughter. “I don’t even want to put a goal or aspiration to it,” Ms. Gutierrez said. “If it’s a positive experience, that’s all that matters. … Having a special-needs child is really hard. I’m so grateful to the Billingtons for this.” Katrina and several other of the students have particularly excelled in art under the direction of Cynthia Devine.
Santa Ynez Valley Union High School 10th-grader Andrew Lennen took the art courses and developed an interest in anime and manga, or Japanese-style comics. He began writing and illustrating a book about a boy named Takashi, who is “different” from other kids and not popular.
His small self-published book called “Kaze, a New Beginning,” will be sold Saturday at the library.
“It’s been really important to find a support group,” said his mother, Linda Lennen. “In thinking about his future, my big concern is what to do after he graduates. There’s nothing in place. He’s worried about it too.” Rev. Billington cites the stories of Kevin Hosseini, who has had painting exhibitions of his own, as well as Jessica Beebe, a young woman in her late 20s with high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome. Through Hidden Wings, she has been mentored for the past eight months by Disney television animator Nancy Ulene.
“The progress she has made was more than I had expected,” Ms. Ulene said from Burbank. “She emails me her artwork and I go through her pieces and then we discuss what to think about and possible ways to improve it. … She is so special and holds so much talent I do not even think she is aware of at this time.” Dr. Darold A. Treffert, a Wisconsin psychiatrist who has studied savant syndrome for four decades, has been serving as a mentor of sorts for Hidden Wings. He calls it an “important, pioneering program.”
“Jim and Julie have invested extraordinary time, effort and love in developing this program, which is important not only in its own right, but also serves as a model for much-needed similar programming nationwide,” Dr. Treffert said. “Training the talent, in whatever portion it exists, can be a valuable tool in a conduit toward normalization for persons with autism/Asperger’s. What may seem to be only diversionary exercises of such talent are in fact methods of engaging and then improving language skills, socialization abilities and greater independence.”
The Billingtons, existing on a few small grants from local foundations, have spent $100,000 of their own funds in the past year in an effort to keep the school afloat. They have money to cover the fall semester.
Rev. Billington, who frequently walks the youngsters through Solvang to socialize both the students and the town, plans to reach out this summer to established foundations and contacts from his years at Harvard University. He envisions a school building in the countryside, close enough to town to provide socialization, but established in nature to eliminate excess stimuli.
“Our end goal is for them to have jobs that reflect their passions,” Rev. Billington said. “This is not therapy or maintenance, neither is it a school to learn auto mechanics. … We want to make a model for the world.”

The Growth and Expansion of Hidden Wings:

A Santa Ynez Valley-based group dedicated to helping young people with autism hopes to create a college geared specially for those students.

The nonprofit “Hidden Wings,” which was formed more than a year ago by the Rev. James Billington and his wife, Dr. Julia Billington, is holding three workshops this month and in April for those interested in forming a college for students with autism, Asperger’s Disorder and related syndromes.

The first retreat focused on the potential construction of the college will take place from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday at the San Lorenzo Seminary, 802 Sky Dr., in Santa Ynez. The follow-up will take place from 3 to 5 p.m. March 21 at the seminary. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 24, Hidden Wings will host a day of “exploration, creativity and fun” at Camp Whittier in Santa Ynez for parents, students and volunteers. It will include art sessions and a ropes course.

“By then, our goal is to have a blueprint of a school,” Rev. Billington said. “Three sessions, very intense, moving from brainstorm to blueprint.”

The Billingtons formed Hidden Wings with the goal of assisting young people diagnosed as having autism or similar disorders receive higher education and career or vocational training. Two of their four sons have been diagnosed as being within the “autism spectrum.”

“The overall response has been that youth on the autistic spectrum — from the lowest functioning to the savants — need a place after high school where they can grow and flourish without the pressure, the teasing, the incapability of the public school system,” said Rev. Billington, who dubbed the proposed school “First Flight College.”

Though Hidden Wings has been teaching a handful of students in the past year, Rev. Billington said he has had little luck in placing the young people into local jobs. The college concept is meant to help provide another path for those students, Rev. Billington said.

“No college has been designed uniquely for those on the autistic spectrum,” he said. “We are in virgin territory. And we have decided that the main architects would be the parents of autistic youth and those who are uniquely gifted at mentoring these youth.”

The Billingtons have been in contact with Dr. Darold Treffert, clinical professor psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin Medical School and a known authority on Savant Syndrome. He has provided much guidance, the couple said.

“‘Hidden Wings” is an apt title for a desperately needed, timely project,” Dr. Treffert said in a statement. “School and program availability for K-12 students with autism ends abruptly with high school graduation and adulthood. Into this regrettable vacuum comes a program that provides continued opportunity for experiencing greater self-worth, increased socialization and more independence. To my knowledge there is no college in this country or elsewhere that is designed uniquely for those on the autistic spectrum. It would be an inspiration.”

“What is at stake are hundreds then thousands of kids who will simply drop off the map once secondary school is over,” said the Rev. Billington. “It is a looming tragedy that we see, in our stable of youth, to be absolutely heartbreaking.”

For more information or reservations to the sessions, call Rev. Billington at 705-3918 or e-mail

Featured on the front page of the Santa Barbara News Press:

    The Centers for Disease Control terms autism an “epidemic.” A top medical expert at the National Institute of Mental Health calls autism the fastest growing disability in the nation.

    Those declarations are particularly telling for the Rev. James Billington and his wife, Julia Billington, M.D., who have two young sons termed as having “special needs,” with some element of autistic-like behavior.

    The Billingtons, who live in Santa Ynez and are both graduates of Harvard University, began to realize as they studied autism that very little exists for children along the “autism spectrum disorder,” once they reach young adulthood.

    Thus came the idea for “Hidden Wings,” a labor of love and an expansive concept they have melded into a newly designated non-profit organization. Hidden Wings is designed to assist young people on the autistic spectrum with higher education and career or vocational training.
    The name of the organization has a number of origins, but Rev. Billington likes to say Hidden Wings will help with “Unfurling the gifts of children with autism.”

    From 7 to 9 p.m. on Friday, March 27, the Billingtons will sponsor “Bridges From School to Society,” a town hall meeting at the Solvang Veterans Memorial Building, in the Legion Wing. Laurie Tullis, the principal of Refugio High School, will be a guest speaker. Ms. Tullis spent 10 years as a special  education teacher in Kern County and specialized in full-inclusion classrooms.

    “The more we have talked around the community about this, the more people with a Down Syndrome child say they have the same problem, or people who have any number of neurological issues, say the same thing.” said Rev. Billington, whose father is the Librarian of Congress. “They haven’t really found an answer.”

    The Billingtons, who previously lived in San Mateo, said they’d like Hidden Wings to be a prototype.

    “Some people who have disabilities or a uniqueness find it is even more difficult to find employment,” explained Rev. Billington, an Episcopal minister. “For people with neurological disorders, retardation or Down Syndrome, we want to offer the hope and sunlight. Instead of looking at it as a lodestone, this is a real upward opportunity that we haven’t realized before.”

    The Billingtons are particularly motivated by the statistics on autism- some say 1 in 150 births – and by a statement from the California Legislative Blue Ribbon Commission on Autism report from 2007. The report concluded the following: “If the state does nothing, these populations will likely repeat the tragic history of the seriously mentally ill after deinstitutionalizing in California. erosions with Autistic Spectrum Disorder will be ‘served’ by a public response one way or another – humane policies and informed programs, or by poverty, homelessness and a dehumanizing criminal justice system.”

    What they hope to create with Hidden Wings is a way for local business people to interact with the yon people and perhaps mentor and introduce them into the workplace. That, the couple says, would create a path to careers or independent lives, rather than having young adults forced into dependence on parents or society.

    The Billingtons and their supporters say Hidden Wings would involve consultants working with teachers and parents to design a specific plan for that transition – whether it be from high school to work, higher education or vocational training. the consultants would help the students as they began training in local businesses, non-profits, or even government agencies, Rev. Billington said.

    “We’re helping to make a future for boys like ours, a future that involves growth  and learning and contribution,” explained Rev. Billington, who previously was the director for the Appalachia Habitat for Humanity.

    Parents who become involved in Hidden Wings would have their children evaluated for particular talents and aspirations, as well as any difficulties they might have interacting with the public or in certain social situations, the Billingtons said. Potentially, an individually designed program for training and eventual job placement would be created. They might even be able to offer training in areas such as understanding social cues during interactions at lunch or on coffee breaks, appropriate grooming  and other elements that would help with success, Rev. Billington said.

    The couple, who have four sons, expect to offer such services for free, and are looking for volunteers and financial assistance. They’d like to create a specific area where the youngsters could practice their skills without ridicule or anxiety.

    “We’d give them a place where they’d have a community,” Rev. Billington said. “Ultimately, we want them to have some life where they can function independently, so they’re not just in a home with a caregiver.”

    Hidden Wings has “become our passion,” said Dr. Billington, who works as an internist at Sansum Clinic.

    Robert Coles, a psychiatry professor and the James Agee professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University has known the Billingtons for three decades. He calls their endeavor a focus on one of the country’s greatest needs, “opening the expanse of possibilities to those people casually labeled as autistic, but bearing each, a unique gift.  This couple has a rock solid commitment, borne of their own experience; they have the highest ethical standards, and have worked tirelessly for over a decade in bringing out the unique gifts, rather than settling for the outward obstacles of these youngsters.”