Santa Barbara News-Press “Nurturing Hidden Wings,” June 16, 2011

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.”