By Gina Potthoff
Hidden Wings is attracting a record number of students, so many that its founders say the school has outgrown its headquarters in the heart of Solvang.
What to do?
The solution lies in the original vision that the Rev. Jim and Dr. Julia Billington developed for the post-secondary school they founded in 2009 — finding a ranch that can be a permanent home for youth on the autistic spectrum.
“We are swamped,” Jim Billington said. “We are popping at the seams. The school is thriving as it never has before.”
After modifying its curriculum this fall to serve adults with autism and other developmental disabilities, many of whom attend adult community day programs, Hidden Wings saw 60 new students in search of the right job and a good friend.
The enrollment growth could also be explained by the fact that nearly 80 percent of those diagnosed with autism haven’t yet reached adulthood, according to the CDC, which says 1 in 68 children are born with autism.
The number of folks who want to visit Hidden Wings, which leases a small building at 517 Atterdag Road, has also jumped since the nonprofit completed a blueprint for how to scale its pioneering model. People want to see what Hidden Wings does.
For the first time, the nonprofit hosted three separate Christmas parties instead of one, since there just wasn’t enough room at the inn for more than 100 guests, Billington said.
Beyond more students, Hidden Wings also has attracted the attention of local Emmy-winning composer Carl Johnson, who’s known for scoring films such as Disney’s “Wall-E,” “The Return of Jafar” and others.
Johnson recently worked alongside students to explore and write music, which plays a special role at Hidden Wings. The nonprofit is a leader in therapeutic drumming and regularly immerses its students in the arts, as well as career and vocational exploration.
“I am inspired by the work Jim and Julia Billington are doing with these remarkable people, and I am amazed how autism touches us all, whether we realize it or not,” Johnson said. “It’s a pleasure to spend some time with the participants at Hidden Wings and learn from them.”
The Billingtons have embarked on a search for a new home, preferably a ranch of at least 10 acres. Once a location has been identified, the nonprofit organization, which accepts no government funding and runs solely on donations, will begin a capital campaign.
Founders hope to provide even more workshops that focus on strengthening social and vocational skills through fun activities such as woodworking, gardening, cooking, yoga, art, music and other special projects.