The cheerful therapy rooms and gathering areas of Greenville’s Center for Developmental Services have witnessed countless milestones: A medically fragile child whose parents feared she might be paralyzed learns to move, sing and delight everyone with her impish antics. Cheers ring out when a child takes first steps, tears when a baby hears his mother’s voice for the first time, squeals of delight when a child learns to pilot her own wheelchair. Families bond over their children’s shared challenges and realize they aren’t alone.
CDS brings together providers under one roof to help individuals with developmental disabilities, with services including screening, diagnosis and therapy (occupational, physical, speech); specialties like audiology, psychology, prosthetics and orthotics; and early intervention, as well as parent education, bilingual interpretation, legal aid and family support.
The center, which executive director Dana McConnell describes as unique in the United States for its range and depth of services, is celebrating 20 years of coordinated care.
“We’re proud and excited about all the milestones our kids have reached, and now we’re excited to celebrate this milestone of our own,” McConnell said.
In celebration, CDS has appointed its founder, Dr. Bill Schmidt, to its board with a special emeritus status. Schmidt, a recently retired pediatric oncologist, served in a number of roles at Prisma Health (formerly Greenville Health System), including chair of pediatrics, founding medical director and later administrator of the Children’s Hospital. The 2018 Order of the Palmetto recipient has said he considers his role in the creation of CDS one of his greatest professional accomplishments.
In the early 1990s, Schmidt saw a need to make it easier for parents of children with disabilities to access services. Because children with diagnoses like autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and rare genetic disorders often need help from multiple providers, coordinating their care at locations across the county became its own challenge.
“Families had to go here and there and try to have a life at the same time,” Schmidt said. “Our idea was to have one spot where like-minded people could share secrets they had learned.”
While the need was clear, a feasible solution was not.
“When you have a need for a health service, whose responsibility is it to provide it? Everyone agrees that developmentally challenged children need help, but nobody wants to pay for it,” Schmidt said. “How do you make the funding work to keep the mission going? I had the idea to get the community involved.”
The United Way of Greenville helped form a task force to study local resources and similar facilities in other cities, seeking an example to follow.
“When you have big dreams but don’t have any money, you spend your time planning,” Schmidt said.
The dream got a boost in 1997 when First Presbyterian Church of Greenville offered rent-free use of a former warehouse on Academy Street.
“It was full of water, full of vermin, but they said, ‘If you can fix it up, you can have it,’” Schmidt said, adding, “It was not the area that it is today.”
A $4.5 million capital campaign led by the late Dr. William R. DeLoache was launched in 1998, and the center opened its doors in 2000, serving 2,000 children in its first year.
Gateway to other services
No one expects to have a child with special health care needs, McConnell said, but when it happens, CDS partner Family Connection of South Carolina provides a network of support from people who truly understand the whirlwind of emotions and the journey ahead — parents who have been there.
“They will go to the NICU to see a mom who just gave birth and help navigate every stage of the process,” she said.
Another partner, Clarity, provides evaluation and treatment for speech, language, hearing, auditory processing, academic and other developmental concerns.
KidVentures of Thrive Upstate provides weekly early-intervention learning activities in the child’s home or day care.
The South Carolina Medical-Legal Partnership, which includes Prisma Health System, Furman University and South Carolina Legal Services, assists with issues like guardianship, insurance or government assistance and other health-related legal needs.
Prisma Health Children’s Hospital offers several specialties at CDS: developmental-behavioral psychology; Kidnetics, which provides therapeutic services; and pediatric prosthetics and orthotics. Prisma Health also operates the Wonder Center, a therapeutic day care for newborns through age 6 with medical and developmental problems who require daily nursing care.
Serving a new generation
In 2019, CDS served 9,300 children and individuals. Some come for a one-time evaluation for a speech delay or a learning difficulty, others come several times a week for years to address lifelong conditions.
During the summer of 2019, the center welcomed its first reported second-generation family, McConnell said.
“A sweet 6-month old boy named Lucas started coming to the Wonder Center,” she said. “He has Holt-Oram syndrome like his mom, Hope, who also came to CDS when she was a child. Now both mother and son will share a similar journey of having caring specialists in one location who collaborate on services to help their family thrive.”
Hope Williams said being able to take her son to the Wonder Center allows her to work in online shipping at Kohl’s. Because of his feeding tube and lung issues, she doubts she could leave him at any other day care. Now 18 months old, Lucas receives speech, occupational and physical therapy while he’s there.
“He’s learned how to sit up, and now he’s a pro at it. He’s learning to hold a bottle and eat with his hands. He was born early, so he just needs more time and guidance,” Williams said. Of the CDS staff, she said, “They treat you like family. You can tell they actually care.”
McConnell said CDS’ next challenges will be addressing capacity issues, especially parking, and finding new ways to expand its services outside the physical building.
“Our plans for the future involve managing the growth in the Upstate as more children with developmental delays are identified,” she said. “We look forward to collaborating with partners to support our clients’ changing needs.”
Schmidt described the center as “a star in the crown of Greenville,” noting that businesses have relocated to the area to be near it.
“You don’t realize what it means until you have a child with special needs,” he said. “CDS will change for sure, but I hope it will always be focused on the developmental needs of children and supporting their families.”
1990: Dr. Bill Schmidt recognized the need for centralized developmental services.
1992: United Way of Greenville helped to form a task force.
1994: Task force traveled to other U.S. locations looking for perfect “model.”
1997: First Presbyterian Church donated property.
1998: Dr. Bill DeLoache led fundraising efforts with a $4.5 million capital campaign.
2000: Doors opened; CDS served 2,000 children that first year.
2005: Added newborn hearing screenings through Clarity.
2014: Added bracing and cranial helmets through GHS (now Prisma Health) department of pediatric prosthetics and orthotics.
2015: Added legal services through the South Carolina Medical-Legal Partnership.
2016: Renovation to expand office and treatment space.
2017: Added counseling services through Clarity.
2018: Added case management services from Thrive Upstate.
2020: Celebrates 20th anniversary and serves over 8,000 children per year.