What happens when the best of science is sandwiched by the best of love?
This is the question that Jacob’s Ladder school has been answering for 27 years as it has helped guide more than 4,000 children with neurobiological disorders toward hope and a future.
Amy O’Dell founded the school in Roswell, Georgia, as a way of making a better life for her youngest child. Jacob had been “born with such a sweet and beautiful spirit, but such a broken body and mind,” she says. Pervasive developmental delay was the diagnosis, a life sentence handed down with piles of documents at once condemning and disaggregated.
“I was told to adjust to the reality of the disability and to try to get pregnant again and hope for a ‘better child,’” she recalled. “It’s still really painful to remember those words.” Where medical experts declared little hope for any kind of change in her son, Amy saw a soul fighting to be seen.
“There was something in his eyes,” she says. “I couldn’t let it go.”
Amy had learned in the years before Jacob’s birth never to give up on a person deemed a lost cause by the accepted systems. She had worked in both adolescent and adult psychiatric care at Woodridge Hospital in Clayton, Georgia, using her degrees in activity therapy and counseling.
But home life was becoming a struggle, as her husband’s job was bringing in an annual income of just $3,000, and she, only able to work part time, wasn’t adding much more. They were borrowing more and more from Amy’s parents while credit card debt compounded. Meanwhile, Jacob’s needs were demanding more attention, and rural Appalachia didn’t have the infrastructure she felt he needed.
Things came to a head one day when Amy dropped off 15-month-old Jacob at a daycare center. As she paused outside the window, she watched as he struggled to hold himself upright. Each time Jacob turned his head upon being released by a caregiver, he toppled over.
Something twisted inside Amy. She watched as the workers moved on and Jacob ceased crying. Perhaps, she suspected, Jacob had decided that if his mother was leaving him, and the cry didn’t work, he was going to sit and be quiet until she came back. “He’d gone into a shell,” she says, shuddering at the memory.
She turned around and picked Jacob up then and there. Placing him on her hip and leaving, Amy drove to Woodridge and quit her job. She then dedicated herself to figuring out how to care for Jacob—pursuing certification in neurodevelopmental growth and intervention, studying programs around the country, working with Jacob eight hours a day, and reading all she could about brain injury and rehabilitation.
When Jacob was five, Amy and her husband decided they could no longer keep their marriage together, and with that finality, she moved with Jacob and his younger sister to Atlanta. Amy knew no one in the big city; she just sensed that hope for her son could be built here.
“I just remember waking up one day and saying, ‘No more. No more information. It’s not going to be information that changes my son’s life. It’s going to be me picking a path and then giving myself to it fully.’”
Love is a method
“Who was I to do a seminar on anything?” Amy says, chuckling at the memory of her early chutzpah as a stranger in Atlanta. “But I hung up some flyers, and people came.”
Amy had decided to offer free seminars at night for families who had kids with special needs. One of the first parents who attended was a wealthy real estate investor. After asking Amy if she could work with his daughter, he gave her an empty nail salon at a shopping center and helped her re-furnish the space. She continued offering the free seminars, but as more families participated, she decided to start charging for evaluations.
These evaluations were novel at the time, pairing an intensive interview with a quantitative electroencephalogram (qEEG) brain scan. Using a noninvasive cap on the patient’s head, the scan maps the brain by measuring electrical activity in the form of brainwave patterns associated with impulsivity, cognitive inflexibility, anxiety, and other symptoms. Using this data, Amy could design custom programming.
Each case was unique. One family thought their son was blind and deaf, only to learn through Amy’s evaluation that he was dealing with a cortical deficiency, which the brain could be trained to overcome. Other kids would come in wheelchairs, unable to walk. Amy would focus heavily on mobility, encouraging at least six hours a day out of the wheelchair, and for many, a new mental map would form.
“In the early years,” Amy says, “no scientist thought I should be running something like this.” Amy didn’t have the right credentials or a PhD. She hadn’t prepped her hands-on work by spending years in a lab. “The common refrain from the experts was, ‘Wait, you?’
It was the 1990s, and the reigning neuroscience was cautious about the capacity of compromised brains to grow new pathways. Attachment theory—the idea that a secure relationship with a loving authority figure was the necessary basis for healthy development and eventual individuation—was just beginning to be explored as not only psychological in orientation, but possibly physical too.
Amy wanted to explore the possibility that love might not simply be a posture but could define an entire methodology. When paired with recent discoveries in neuroplasticity—the ability of brains to form and reorganize synaptic connections after a traumatic experience or physical injury—could love make the difference between surviving and thriving?
Parents found something hopeful in a leader who believed their children had the capacity to change. Word began spreading that Amy was a different kind of neurodevelopmental clinician, and soon a few children became dozens, and dozens became hundreds.
Amy’s fees became her salary, with a growing surplus that enabled her to hire her first three employees. Jacob’s Ladder hung up its sign in 1999.
When paired with recent discoveries in neuroplasticity, could love make the difference between surviving and thriving?
“We do two trainings for staff at Jacob’s Ladder,” Amy says. “Training in the hope, truth, and love methodology, and training in the science methodology. When you apply both, and you do so very consistently, the brain responds and stretches into new terrain.”
The name Jacob’s Ladder reflects this philosophy. While it honors the inspiration of her son, as well as Amy’s identification with the story of Jacob wrestling with God, there is also a notion of steps, of linkages built one on the next to heal neural connections in the brain. Amy doesn’t believe in dead ends, not for children, not for the human brain.
“Our ethos has always been, ‘Let’s just meet each child where he or she is at, right here, right now, and not worry about 20 years in the future,’” Amy says. “When the child gains that momentum, and covers that ground, [our task is] to be acutely aware of the next step.”
The interpersonal whole-brain approach
With a curriculum customized to each child and a 1.6-to-1 teacher-to-student ratio, Jacob’s Ladder welcomes those with conditions as varied as autism, Down syndrome, attention deficit disorder, anxiety disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, and bipolar disorders, among others.
“We promise families that their child will have a very specialized approach to their learning and developmental needs,” Amy says. “But each carefully designed day will be wrapped within the constants of heavy psychological safety, security, relationship, compassion, and unconditional positive regard, no matter how difficult someone’s behavior becomes.”
Kids arrive to teachers wearing “Choose Love” shirts and are ushered into one of three learning environments: the Ladder, which serves students needing intensive one-on-one care; The Hope School for students with emotional, behavioral, and relational challenges; or COMPASS, which works with young adults in need of job training and community-based instruction. Bolstering the three pods are various licensed specialists: occupational, physical, speech, and mental health counselors, as well as a consulting clinical psychologist who specializes in neurofeedback and brain mapping.
“We don’t waste a moment of a child’s day,” Amy says. “We take every opportunity we can to integrate each lesson with one another—from their language base to their relational skills to their conflict resolution skills to their self-regulation skills when stress hits them. It may look like this fast-moving river to the visitor, but it’s all very intentional.” Children are taught to be growers and nurturers, tending to gardens, raising goats. Outdoor play happens daily.
“I was skeptical at first,” says Rachel Pereira, “and then I saw the school.” Her son had been physically abused to the point of suffocation by a teacher in kindergarten. As he would lose self-restraint and increasingly lash out in violence as he grew, his elementary school years were, in Rachel’s words, “a nightmare.” She and her husband felt they had no choice but to confine him at home.
At their wits’ end when their son was ten, the couple was told about an “oasis of angels” not four miles from their house.
“You feel the love as soon as you walk on campus,” Rachel says of what is now a 13-acre property complete with butterflies, birds, walking paths, and gardens. “My son wanted to be a normal kid, but he simply couldn’t. Amy told me that Jacob’s Ladder was never going to give up on him, and I decided to believe her.”
After a first few tough months, Rachel’s son ceased having fits and breakouts. Amy’s own son Jacob—then 26 and a teacher at the school—built a trusted bond with him. “It’s a miracle,” Rachel says. “The school is a godsend.”
An invisible yet fierce circle of norms protects the Jacob’s Ladder experience. Phones and iPads are nowhere to be seen. Staff work to leave behind their life stresses on their commutes in.
“We expect our staff to learn what it means to be a vessel and pour into another human being, whatever the self-sacrifice,” Amy says. “We may not hit it every day all day, but just trying to do it daily makes a difference.”
Students are respected as those who pick up on the smallest signals of mental presence or absence. Regardless of neural condition, Amy believes, human beings intuitively know when they are treasured and when they are a burden.
“In the early years,” Amy says, “when I was working with Jacob, it quickly became clear that as much as I gave of my own thought and energy to the moment, that’s the amount he received. If I was trying to teach him to read the alphabet, he would learn the letters if I was 100 percent with him. But if I got distracted and would start thinking about my grocery shopping list … I could be physically right there, turned towards him, same everything on the outside, but he would falter.”
The school’s success with each student depends on many factors: the severity of the child’s condition, the child’s age, and the family’s degree of support toward the efforts. For some parents, a child just learning to use a hand that couldn’t be used before could be a giant gift of hope.
“When you undertake this work diligently, consistently, and with integrity, you will always see growth and change,” Amy says. “It could be slow and in very small ways for one child, and quick and dramatic for another.
The power of naming
Chris Hatcher and his wife had tried everything for their son: public school, private school, therapeutic programs, homeschooling. The boy had also experienced trauma early in his elementary education, and he now dealt with ADHD, emotional dysregulation issues, dyslexia, and more. He was breaking pencils, dumping desks over, threatening other students, and in one fourth-grade year was restrained 27 times.
A consulting firm mentioned The Hope School at Jacob’s Ladder. Chris looked at the website and read, “kids with complex problems … conduct disorder … high-functioning autism …” “It described our kid,” Chris says. He took the 11-year-old in for an assessment.
“From the brain scan, we learned that the fear center was all lit up in his brain, shutting down the speech center,” Chris says. “We learned that when he’s under a lot of stress, he goes quiet and can’t communicate.” Rife fear, it turns out, was drowning out the healthy development of other neural pathways.
This identification was a comfort all on its own. “Then Amy and her colleagues went through a very thorough set of questions to find out who at the school would be the right people for [him], customizing a program specifically to him,” Chris says. They learned that he liked to work with his hands, so they assigned him to help with maintenance on campus.
Two years after entering the program at a first-grade reading level, he’s catapulted to a seventh-grade level. He’s also in better control of his emotions when stresses occur. “We have seen his toolbox grow greatly for how he can deal with things,” Chris says. “Particularly the emotional dysregulation—the stuff that used to be explosive is just not there anymore.”
“I think other schools had an understanding of what we were going through,” Chris says, “but they still had their program, their way of doing things. And the one thing we always came back to was that they couldn’t handle the behavior. Jacob’s Ladder can handle the behavior.” All staff who work with kids with severe track records are trained and certified in crisis intervention, and the school keeps strict safety protocols.
But equally noteworthy? “Amy always tells us, ‘You’re the parents, you understand your child better than anyone,’” Chris says. “That is something that you rarely hear.”
Can love scale?
As success stories have multiplied and Amy’s public credibility has grown, so has demand from parents outside Atlanta to take the methodology global. As happened to many, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Amy to experiment with different ways of packaging the methodology for national—even international—use.
But can something so high-touch and communal in nature go global without losing its distinctive magic?
One figure in the Atlanta health tech scene thinks so.
Ross Mason has been a serial entrepreneur, a civic leader, and a triathlete. In 2007, he had a vision to make Atlanta the Silicon Valley of health, to inject market excellence and incentives into a system he thought was too self-satisfied. He founded HINRI (the High Impact Network of Responsible Innovators), a venture philanthropy group that “mirrors how angel investors help entrepreneurs build companies that can scale effectively and reduce risk for investors and donors,” according to its website.
Around this time, Ross and Amy met up for lunch. They had gone to Sunday school together while growing up in Madison, Georgia. Ross found in Amy exactly the sort of social entrepreneur HINRI existed to help. The two of them pledged to collaborate when, just weeks later, Ross’s life took a dramatic turn.
He was biking his normal training route when a bee snuck inside his helmet. As he tried to swat it out, he swerved sharply. He crashed, breaking his neck and enduring a C6 spinal cord injury.
Amy visited Ross many times in the hospital, praying with him and accompanying him through terrain she knew from her own journey. Their friendship blossomed, and in 2010, Ross began to approach foundations to launch the first capital campaign for Jacob’s Ladder. He put together a formal board of directors that he would chair.
Ross’s experience convinced him that health care experts exclude all but a narrow range of credentials tied to industry and prestige. Amy, by contrast, embodies qualities Ross believes could turn American health care around: personalism, holistic paradigms, praxis before theory,
“Amy is focused on ‘What does this child need?’ Not, ‘How do you fit into the research paper that I just wrote?’” Ross says. “She’s the kindest person you’ll ever meet, but she threatens the status quo.”
Ross is challenging Amy to put her methodology online and make it open source. He wants to turn the center in Roswell into “a mothership training center”—like a demonstration city—which would spawn replicas in Geneva, Jerusalem, San Francisco, and elsewhere. He wants, in short, to change the way the world treats human potential.
Eternity begins in the proximate
“As truth is revealed in the day-to-day moments of life,” Amy says, “and in the interchanges and relationships that surround me, I’m always awestruck at how the grace of God works.”
This attitude is not for lack of suffering.
“One of the greatest gifts about having Jacob was that it completely crushed the illusion that I have control in my life. … I was completely brought to my knees in the midst of that fear to see that, for me and my life personally, it was an opening to knowing there is a power much greater than myself that I can rely on. So rather than seeing my fear, I put the fear into action, and the action is called love.”
That love has worked itself out through steps, one at a time, in brains, hearts, and households. “Families will come in so despairing,” Amy says, “and by the time they leave, they are just so thankful that someone is believing in their child.” She coaches parents in principles of truth-telling, choosing joy, focusing on a child’s strengths, and, to borrow from Eugene Peterson, a long obedience in the same direction.
“This is the story God gave me,” Amy says. “He authored it, and I’ve done my best to walk it out.”
This story was originally published in the April 2021 issue of Christianity Today.