Though I had read about it earlier, my first real exposure to the Alyce Hatch Center occurred in 1989, shortly after my younger daughter, Mary, was diagnosed with Williams Syndrome, a genetic condition that includes intellectual disability.

It was a scary time in my life. Although her dad and I had suspected Mary might have a disability, it didn’t become official until a week shy of her third birthday. Neither I nor her father knew quite what to expect or how to go about expecting it.

Pediatrician Mary Brown told us about the Alyce Hatch Center, if I remember correctly, and before long, Mary — tiny, skinny little Mary —enrolled in the school NW Juniper and NW Newport avenues.

The center was named for the late Alyce Hatch, a Bend woman who had given a lifetime of herself to volunteer causes in the area, many of them involving children. It had begun life in the basement of the United Methodist Church in the 1970s, and got a new name and new building in 1984.

Today, the center is the hub of services for Bend children from birth to age 5 with a variety of special needs. It’s run by the High Desert Education Service District, which offers similar services throughout Central Oregon. More than 200 children attend school at Alyce Hatch Center daily, a number that will surely increase by spring, says Diane Tipton, director of early childhood education for the ESD. Regionwide, the ESD oversees early-learning programs for more than 600 children.

There are things the center and ESD cannot provide, however, and that’s where the Alyce Hatch Foundation, which owns the building in which the center is located, comes in, with hands-on projects and fundraising.

Some of what the board raises money for helps every child at Alyce Hatch. A new playground was put in with money from the foundation, and last year, a shed was custom built to hold physical therapy equipment when it was not in use. That freed additional space inside for the kids who use the equipment. Tom Laidlaw donated money for the shed, says Carla Hunt, vice president of the foundation board of directors. What was not used on construction went into the board’s Family Aid Fund.

It will no doubt be put to good use.

Too often, kids with disabilities need things typical kids do not, and schools cannot provide them. Such things as motorized wheelchairs, orthotic footwear and the like give Alyce Hatch kids the ability to take part in life in ways they might not otherwise be able to do.

Problem is, such stuff doesn’t come cheap, and that can leave families with more needs than income. In fact, by one estimate, a family will spend up to four times as much raising a child with a disability than it will spend on a more typical sibling.

The Family Aid Fund helps make special equipment affordable for some families. It occasionally provides food to families, or winter coats, or something else. And while the board raises the money the fund spends, it does not get involved in deciding who should be given what. Instead, an outside group handles that part of the process.

The foundation board gets involved in other ways, however. It holds an evening with Santa Claus just about every year for children and their families.

This year’s event was Dec. 6; last year’s was canceled, an unfortunate victim of December’s terrible weather. The food for last year’s event, Hunt says, was donated to Shepherd’s House.

In the 40-plus years the Alyce Hatch Center and its predecessors have been in Central Oregon, the school has no doubt served thousands of children, as the law says it must.

What federal law does not say, however, is that such a school must come with a board of caring adults who, along with staff, work hard to see that each kid there gets what he or she needs. The kids at Alyce Hatch do have that kind of board, men and women whose efforts enhance what the school provides.

— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821,