Laura Hope Whitaker
Chief Executive Officer of ESP & Co-Founder of Java Joy
Extra Special People
Location: Watkinsville, Georgia
Some people choose their jobs; some jobs choose their people. In 1986, Laura Hope Whitaker found herself thrust into the latter category when she became the executive director of Extra Special People (ESP) at age 19. When its founder died of pancreatic cancer, the nonprofit took a risk in trusting Whitaker to continue and expand ESP’s mission, creating transformative experiences for people with disabilities and their families and changing communities for the better.
Her experience in being faced with risk at such a young age began a pattern that Whitaker would lean into throughout her career. “My job is about serving people and changing the perspectives and lives of communities,” she says. “Risk after risk and challenge after challenge has resulted in thousands of lives being changed.”
ESP started as a one-week summer camp that has blossomed into an organization with year-round programming for babies to older adults in three cities across Georgia. Under Whitaker’s direction, ESP has grown from an office of four employees serving 21 families to 29 employees serving more than 900 families. In the next five years, they hope to have five ESP locations serving 1,200 families, or more.
Throughout her career, Whitaker has demonstrated exceptional leadership, vision, passion and influence in her field. When other leaders told her she couldn’t raise $3 million for a new building in a suffering economy, she did it. When construction halted at the Miracle League complex, due to hitting rock, she raised an additional $1 million for the $4 million project and got it completed. Through ongoing fundraising efforts, ESP has expanded to include a Miracle League Field, where children with disabilities can play baseball, and a public, universally accessible playground for all to enjoy.
Whitaker has received many recognitions for her efforts, including the Bulldog 100 award (2017); the 40 under 40 award by the Atlanta Business Chronicle, UGA Alumni Association, Athens Banner-Herald and Georgia Trend; and the Super Citizen Award by the Athens Banner-Herald. In 2021, Laura was nominated and chosen as the ATHENA Award Honoree.
In 2016, Whitaker co-founded Java Joy, a program of ESP. Through a fleet of mobile coffee carts, Java Joy employs adults with disabilities with meaningful employment and interaction with the public in three cities. The initiative is helping lower the percentage of unemployed adults with disabilities, which currently stands at 87%. Whitaker considers taking four Joyristas (Joy + barista) on their very first business trip, to serve coffee and hugs in San Francisco, California, one of the highlights of her career.
Accepting the call to serve as ESP’s executive director at age 19 changed Whitaker’s life in significant ways. In return, she hopes to impact the lives of others.
Even though she's a die-hard UGA fan, she loves elephants.