Mrs. Jean Willers, 74, of Gainesville passed away Tuesday September 17, 2019 after an extended illness. She was at home surrounded by family and friends.
Born February 22, 1945, Jean spent most of her early years in Sandy Springs, GA. She attended the University of Florida and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in occupational therapy and a master’s degree in special education. Early careers included teaching special education in Oak Park, Illinois, serving as principal of the Gillete State Hospital School in St Paul, MN and founding the occupational therapy department of the City of Memphis Hospital, TN.
In 1976 she moved to Gainesville, GA with her husband, Don as he began his medical career and they began raising their 3 children. In 1981 she began her life’s work with a simple offer of help for a child in the face of a tragic accident. She first began seeing the child, Randy Owens in her home but soon realized he needed to be around other children. She found that there were no programs available for children with special needs and decided to start one. With donated space at First Baptist Church of Gainesville and an advertisement in the Gainesville Times offering a school for preschool aged children with special needs, the “Special Child Program” was born. With the help of wonderful volunteers and Jean as the initial director, teacher and therapist, six children were served in the first year. With community support, the program thrived and in 1985 became Challenged Child. In a letter to the editor of the Gainesville Times she thanked the community for its support, “Because you believed in us and in the need for such a program, you have made it possible…We will work hard to meet our goals…to help each child develop to his fullest potential, to provide support and guidance to both the child with developmental delays and their family and to increase community awareness and support for our children and their families.”
In 1992 Challenged Child and Friends expanded to become a fully inclusive program serving children with disabilities along with their typically developing peers. This reflected Jean’s philosophy that children with and without disabilities were more the “same” than they were different and that they could learn from each other. “They are all children first.” The program also expanded to partner with both Hall County and Gainesville City Schools to help serve some of their students with disabilities ages three to six years. Now called Sisu, the mission remains unchanged from her vision and this year 283 children from 13 counties are being served.
To her family and friends she was unwavering love, support and much laughter and fun. For generations of children and their families she gave help and hope. Her legacy reminds us all that one person can make a difference.
Jean is survived by her devoted and loving husband of 51 years, Don Willers and their children; daughter and son in law, Jennifer and Mike Gottsman; son and daughter in law Jeff and Liz Willers; daughter and son in law Suzanne and Jim Hlavacek; eight grandchildren; Kate, Caroline and Carter Gottsman; Owen, Isabel, and Charlie Willers; and Andrew and Emily Hlavacek as well as many extended family members.
The family wishes to extend appreciation to an amazing team of caregivers: Margie Patrick, Lashae Hudson, Jennifer Dexter and Mia Torres.
In lieu of flowers, the family request donations be made to Sisu, 2360 Murphy Blvd Gainesville GA 30504.
Please join us in celebration of her life on Saturday October 12 at 2 pm at First Presbyterian Church, 800 South Enota Drive, Gainesville, GA 30501.
Those wishing to send online condolences to the family may do so at littledavenport.com
Little & Davenport Funeral Home and Crematory, 355 Dawsonville Highway, SW, Gainesville, Ga. 30501 is in charge of arrangements.
To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of Jean (Burkholder) Willers, please visit our floral store.