Baton Rouge Speech and Hearing Foundation was founded in 1960 by the Junior League, and Quota International of Baton Rouge quickly joined the movement to fill the need for early childhood training for deaf and hard-of-hearing children, as the Louisiana School for the Deaf could not see children under 6 years old. BRSHF was originally housed in 2 classrooms at Walnut Hills Elementary School with 2 full time staff and 49 community volunteers. The Foundation’s original format comprised 2 programs for deaf & hard of hearing children: a morning pre-school nursery, and an after-school speech therapy program for school aged children.
In 1963, BRSHF upgraded to additional space at University Terrace Elementary school on West Roosevelt Street. The program for school-aged children was discontinued in a shift to nursery and preschool services.
Speech Pathologist Dr. Margaret Neely, our West Roosevelt facility’s namesake, became BRSHF’s Executive Director in 1965 – a position she held until her death in 1981. A stutterer herself, Dr. Neely pioneered “total language education” in Baton Rouge, insisting that if you teach deaf and hard of hearing children to sign, they’ll never speak, which hinders their functioning in a hearing world.
In 1966, BRSHF’s Board of Directors, spearheaded by Kevin Reilly, secured Federal, State, and private funding to build on a 1-acre lot adjacent to University Terrace, acquired from the East Baton Rouge Parish School System. (A large portion of funds raised for construction came from a Federal grant through the Department of Health and Human Services Hill-Burton program for free and reduced-cost healthcare – a program through which BRSHF offered sliding-scale fees for services until the late 1990s.) In October, 1967 construction began on the facility, and on November 20, 1968, 535 W. Roosevelt St. was dedicated as the Baton Rouge Speech and Hearing Foundation.
In 1975, Congress passed what is now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), mandating that free education be available in the school systems from ages 3-21. As more comprehensive deaf education was offered in public schools, BRSHF focused closely on children with speech and language difficulties. 1976 saw BRSHF gain affiliation with the Capital Area United Way, a partnership we have proudly upheld for over 30 years.
In the late 1970s, BRSHF provided outreach services around the city, a summer camp clinic, parent training for hearing impaired, and adult speech rehabilitative services at local hospitals.
In the early 1980s, early education specialist Ann Nader pioneered BRSHF’s groundbreaking preschool language classes. The program was born from a desire to make the greatest impact on the greatest number of children, which is a goal that continues to drive our Foundation Program today. While we make changes and innovations to the program each year, this core program defines us in many ways, and we are proud of the strong history of creative programming and successful outcomes it represents.
In the late 1980s, BRSHF began administering the LA Department of Health and Hospital’s “Childnet” early intervention services for ages 0-3, as providers for special instruction and speech therapy on site at 535 W. Roosevelt. Over time, the program shifted to in-home services only, and in 2003 was renamed the “Early Steps” program, whose services BRSHF still offers today. In 1989, BRSHF launched the Deaf Start program, a pilot program for deaf infants, a program which continued under various names through the early 2000s.
1981 saw the tragic passing of Dr. Margaret Neely, BRSHF’s Executive Director since 1965. In 1987, BRSHF’s staff Social Worker, John Bowman, took over the position, which he held until 2005. A fluent signer, John Bowman implemented numerous programs to continue supporting the deaf and hard of hearing, as well as the language delayed, in the community.
The 1990s were a time of transition in BRSHF’s funding model, as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Hill-Burton program for free and reduced-cost healthcare, through which BRSHF offered sliding-scale fees 1960, was discontinued. The facility underwent numerous renovations and expansions, and BRSHF was supported through the efforts of an active Fundraising Guild and Parents Group.
In the early 2000s, BRSHF began providing clinic-based Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy and conceived its Programs for Children with Autism in the format it is today, through a partnership with LSU’s Department of Psychology.
At this time, BRSHF also initiated its Outreach Hearing Screenings program, thanks to the Mobile Testing Unit found, donated, and equipped by the Sertoma Club, Quota Club, Delta Zeta, and the Wilson Foundation. In 2007, Melissa Juneau took the reins as Executive Director, and grew all programs, including introducing a robust fund development program, to support growing BRSHF’s mission. Under Melissa’s tenure, BRSHF also began accepting private insurance plans, living up to BRSHF’s goal to truly be a clinic for the whole community.
Following quickly on the heels of that auspicious birthday, BRSHF launched a capital campaign, raising money for a new facility that would allow us to offer greatly increased services and reach many more clients than were possible to accommodate at the West Roosevelt facility. BRSHF’s board and staff worked feverishly to bring the highest quality, evidence based treatment options from around the country to our community, and in 2 years, fulfilled the campaign’s $7million goal.
Around the same time, BRSHF also identified the need to update its brand identity to better reflect not only the services, but also the hope we offer to families across a great part of South Louisiana. Our reach had grown to encompass far more than just the Baton Rouge region, and our services could no longer be simply summarized by “speech and hearing.” Finally, the term “foundation” no longer communicated our status as a center that provided quality services.
In April, 2014 BRSHF moved into its new, state-of-the-art facility. At that time, the organization proudly begin operating as The Emerge Center for Communication, Behavior, and Development.
Since the opening of the Emerge Center, the organization has grown to serve annually over one thousand five hundred individuals. In 2017, the Board of Directors and executive leadership of The Emerge Center completed a three-year Strategic Plan that leverages the history and track record of Emerge to position the non-profit organization for sustainable growth in its services for children with autism and communication challenges. The three pillars that frame this plan are:
- Therapy Services– as the core of Emerge and the basis for its strong results
- Education – for children with autism who need therapeutic support
- Access – believing that increased access to services for children in its care increases Emerge’s impact
By implementing the Strategic Plan, Emerge has expanded into education with the creation of The Emerge School for Autism and has established The Emerge Foundation to provide long-term financial stability for the Center and the School.