Life's for Giving

Bairds give $1.5 million to
JMU Attention and Learning Disabilities Center

"Life's for giving, not taking," declares Alvin V. Baird Jr. He and his wife, Nancy Chappelear Baird ('40), have given $1.5 million, JMU's largest gift ever, to fund the new Attention and Learning Disabilities Center.

"When I learned that JMU was creating a learning disabilities center, I knew I had to check into it," says Alvin Baird. "I attended a staff meeting, met the director, Dr. Steve Evans, and became convinced that it would be a success. I wanted to help."

Baird, an amicable octogenarian, whose gift for remembering exact dates is uncanny, also knows firsthand what it is like to grow up with a learning disorder. "In my childhood days, educators were not aware of the difficulties that such a child can have," he explains. "Today there is awareness, but still not much has been done to help. ... I had a difficult time in school. I had difficulty in mathematics. They didn't know anything about learning disorders back then, but I was able to alleviate most of my problems with constant one-on-one math tutors. It wasn't until Professor Orton published his groundbreaking findings on learning problems that people began to understand. But I was in college by that time."

And like Baird, many young people reach college-age before their learning disabilities are ever diagnosed. According to Lou Hedrick, director of JMU's Office of Disability Services, "Of the 420 students registered with our office, 270 have disabilities which affect learning." Hedrick's staff also serve students with physical and emotional disabilities.

Baird says he was never teased as a child "who had arithmetic problems," but laughs, "I didn't have too much prestige, either."

"Alvin's family was known for their hospitality," wife Nancy enthusiastically interjects. "Most all the children loved Alvin." The Bairds' affectionate rapport and generous spirit are evident from the moment you meet the unselfish duo. Their 34-year marriage has afforded them "not only the privilege" but also the exceptional ability to finish each other's sentences and share many good-hearted belly laughs.

Baird, who considers himself a survivor of the "buck famine" (the Great Depression), turned 84 on Oct. 6. Besides giving JMU its largest gift ever, he has become a resource for information and an adviser to the ALDC. As an avid reader, he found a U.S. News & World Report article detailing the relationship between lead paint and children with learning disabilities. As a hands-on member of the ALDC Steering Committee, he immediately shared the article with Steve Evans, director of JMU's Human Development Center and the Attention and Learning Disabilities Center.

"We want to be active in this learning disabilities center," says Baird. "Nancy and I chose to come forward in announcing this gift because I hope it will encourage others to give and help establish a $2 million endowment for the center, so the programs will continue to help others in the community and beyond. The best thing for me is to know that someone will benefit -- maybe not all -- but a great deal more than when I came along. It will be worth seeing the difference this center will make in the lives of young people. I've always thought that you can create anything for yourself, no matter what handicaps you have."

"The Bairds were honored with the John Redstrom Award for Mental Health by the Virginia Mental Health Association," says Charles Crosson, director of planned giving at JMU. "There are eight different levels of philanthropy, with anonymous giving being the preeminent. We encouraged the Bairds to let us use their name with this gift, in order to encourage others to give to the center; but this gift is as pure as philanthropy gets. Most donors focus only on accountability, but Alvin wants to be involved. He is very helpful to the ALDC Steering Committee, which also includes JMU faculty members and representatives from the community's mental health organizations."

Evans adds, "The Bairds' generous gift has been a tremendous boost to the ALDC's mission to support service, training and research in the areas of learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders. We will be using the funds to add support to our current evaluation and treatment programs and to add new programs that provide remedial reading and math services. The funds will also provide teachers with consultation and other resources, and will help us expand the number of undergraduate and graduate students who receive training in this field. The Bairds' gift greatly raises the level of services that we can provide children and their parents, and we are pleased that Mr. Baird is taking an active personal role."

Still in its first year, the ALDC has already formed community partnerships with Harrisonburg Pediatrics, Rockingham Memorial Hospital's Behavioral Health Unit, and the special education programs of the area's city and county schools. Parent training classes, funded by the Bairds' gift, will be jointly staffed by JMU, RMH and Harrisonburg Pediatrics. The Baird gift will also fund ALDC staff positions, two graduate assistantships, more extensive training programs for undergraduates in the field of attention deficit disorders, contracts with area psychologists to extend evaluation services, affordable parent training and staffing of a Remedial Academic Services program.

One of the ALDC/area school system partnership programs, Challenging Horizons, was established in Montevideo Middle School in Penn Laird. Aimed at school children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, the program differs from traditional mental-health treatment approaches because Evans and his team of graduate and undergraduate psychology students actually work with the youngsters at their school.

This method differs dramatically from traditional outpatient care, which, "frequently has difficulty successfully changing behavior outside of the therapy sessions," says Evans. "We've added a parent training component, and we get into the child's world, because that's where the switches are that we can pull to make a difference."

The $1.5 million donation from the Bairds is a charitable lead trust gift. Five percent of the initial principal value will be paid to the JMU Foundation for 15 years. At the end of that time, the family will receive the principal plus any growth over and above the 5 percent payout. With a charitable lead trust, the donor receives a reduction in the principal (estate) value equal to the charitable deduction.

"No matter how you look at it," says Baird, "we knew this was the best way to use our money to help others. That's what life's about."

Story by Michelle Hite ('88)
Photos by Diane Elliot ('00)

Publisher: Montpelier Magazine For Information Contact: What's In a Name?