Discovering the Difference

Discovering the Difference

Glenwood Builds Community through Care

Words by Alex Broadhead
Photos by Maddie Moore

Educational and mental health services have not always been readily available to those in need. Prior to the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, which entitled all children to free, appropriate public education, many children with special needs could not be easily served in existing programs. But in Birmingham, Alabama, a group of community leaders sought to respond to that need and formed Glenwood Autism and Behavioral Health Center. From the beginning, the mission was clear: form an agency devoted to providing treatment, education, and research in the area of children’s mental health. 

Its first program, the Allan Cott School, combined treatment and educational services for severely emotionally disturbed children who were often excluded from other programs. The school opened its doors in 1974, using space donated by St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham. Eighteen students diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and severe emotional disorders were enrolled. Almost immediately the demand for services soared. Now, the Allan Cott School is just one of many services provided at Glenwood.

Through the years, Glenwood has continued to expand and develop new programs to serve the growing client base, including residential treatment for children and adults. Ken Oliver, CEO of Glenwood, shares, “We have enjoyed a tremendous amount of community support over the years, and we are always looking for ways we can meet a need within the community.” The drive to listen to those they serve and the desire to meet their needs in every way has allowed Glenwood to stay innovative in its treatments and inquisitive in its research—always expanding knowledge and program offerings. Glenwood’s Chief Development Officer, Linda Baker, explains, “One in 54 children born today will be diagnosed with autism, and 1 in 20 school aged children will be diagnosed with a mental health disorder that will impair their functioning while in school. We want to be able to match those individuals with resources that will enrich their lives.”

Glenwood has grown considerably since its humble beginning in a borrowed church space. Today, the campus is located on 363 acres of land, with a number of off-campus clinics and offices. It serves about 8,000 people per year, with ages ranging from 18 months to over 60 years. While Glenwood’s growth and reach is an amazing feat for any organization, what is so much more amazing is the hope the staff is able to offer and the community that has been born out of that hope. 

When you encounter a Glenwood family, their passion for the organization is truly infectious. They can’t help but share their experiences, their hopefulness, and their gratitude. “Through our intensive one-on-one Applied Behavior Analysis therapy programs, parents are often getting to experience their children in new ways for the first time. Children who wouldn’t speak begin talking, children who weren’t affectionate will give a hug for the first time. We take so much for granted, but these moments are huge and so emotional for the families,” Linda explains. 

One man, whom we will call Clark, shared about his own family’s journey to finding Glenwood and discovering the difference it makes to finally have options for his daughter, Sam. “I consider us a family with autism. Autism doesn't affect only one person. It affects the entire support system.” Sam was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when she was a toddler—just as her parents were working to juggle their new careers with the needs of their two children. Their world changed completely almost overnight. Every parent experiences moments of insecurity, wondering if they are doing the right things or making the right choices. But for Sam’s family, there was a constant fear that they weren’t enough for her, that they couldn’t meet her needs and be the family she needed, that they were overwhelmed and drowning and failing their child in the process.

And then they found Glenwood. “The day we brought Sam to Glenwood, she was 10 years old. We dropped her off and she was hitting and screaming and crying.” Her father had to leave her there and trust that they were making the right choice for her—that perhaps she would finally get the care and services she needed. Fast-forward 11 years, and Sam is now an adult who works at Glenwood and thinks of the campus as her home, her safe haven, the place where she has a sense of belonging. “Glenwood saved our lives and gave my daughter an opportunity to live a happy, fulfilled life with friends and school and work and a community. Our family would have imploded without Glenwood—we wouldn’t have survived.”

These kinds of shared realities—these unique needs, challenges, and triumphs that must be experienced to really be appreciated—are what ultimately contribute to the sense of community at Glenwood. Many of the patients and family members are being seen and understood, perhaps for the first time. 

The beauty of Glenwood’s services is that they are not at all prescriptive. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. The staff and providers spend time learning about each individual’s needs and developing a treatment plan best suited to their life stage, abilities, and goals. For some, that involves living in one of their residential homes. For others, that means regular group therapy or physical and speech therapies at one of the clinics. But no matter the needs or chosen services, one thing remains the same: each family is completely engulfed in a holistic approach to care that fosters a deep sense of community and belonging. 

Glenwood has a long, rich history in Birmingham, with a big vision for continuing to grow and expand its services and reach. From the very beginning, its mission, at every turn, has been to develop a special place for special people. And by all accounts, Glenwood has done just that—and so much more. To learn more about Glenwood’s services or to give to this incredible mission, visit