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Woodhaven Champions Embracing All Abilities

Woodhaven Champions Embracing All Abilities

  • "Embracing All Abilities" originally appeared in the January 2024 health and wellness issue of COMO Magazine.
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From a secluded refuge to a bustling community, Woodhaven helps reshape public perceptions and empower those with diverse abilities.

In the Columbia of 1961, parents of developmentally disabled children had no resources available to help them in the formidable task of raising a special needs child. When Dr. and Mrs. Frank J. Nifong donated land to the National Benevolent Association — an arm of the Disciples of Christ church — planning for the “Haven in the Woods” began. Its doors opened in May 1964 as Woodhaven, originally serving eight boys and eight girls. By 1975, Woodhaven served 225 individuals, confirming the extraordinary need for its services.

When Columbia Public Schools began to offer programs for individuals with developmental disabilities, children could attend school with their peers. This transition afforded Woodhaven its own move into supporting adults through myriad programs and residential homes and apartments. 

The Individuals Supported

One of Woodhaven’s missions is to change the public perception — if not stereotype — of individuals with developmental disabilities and neurodiversity, a term referring to the concept that certain developmental disorders are normal variations in the brain.

“These individuals are adults with adult needs,” says Jes Baldwin, Woodhaven’s development and events coordinator. While their speech and thinking processes might be different, their hearts and emotions function at full capacity. Jes tearfully recalls a gentleman, who has since died, who always knew what to say to make her smile. Some days she would hear his voice and run to greet him simply to hear what he would say to her, certain that his words would warm her heart.

Columbia Connections

“It’s so important that we get out into the community,” Baldwin says. “The more you see us out there buying groceries and working at the places that you go — the more you witness that — the more you’ll realize, ‘Hey, that person is not so much different than me,’ and you’ll learn how to treat them like a person. It’s all about respect.”

Woodhaven currently has close to fifty residential homes and apartments throughout Columbia. Ninety-two individuals live in the homes with an additional fourteen individuals who live in their own homes and are supported by Woodhaven’s Community Support Services program. The men and women who live in Woodhaven homes decorate according to their tastes, and they plan, play, and work just like others in the community.

A Woodhaven direct support professional (DSP) is also in residence at the homes, taking shifts to ensure someone is available around-the-clock to meet any needs. Depending on the residents, the DSP will have different responsibilities from hygiene to cooking to chauffeuring. The residents are friends and family, neighbors, and community members.

As part of the community, residents plan and host an annual red-carpet gala to benefit another nonprofit in mid-Missouri. They host a trunk-or-treat and volunteer around town. Some residents hold full- or part-time jobs. Through Woodhaven’s Community Employment Services, team members work with individuals to explore possible career paths. The program helps individuals determine their strengths, investigate job interests, develop job skills in their chosen field, write a resume, practice for interviews, and find a job that fits. 

And the support doesn’t stop there. Woodhaven staff continues to work with the employer and the individual to ensure success. Some current employers include the Columbia Mall, Central Missouri Subcontracting Enterprises and the CMSE Giving Gardens, Fr. Tolton High School, and FedEx. Baldwin says Woodhaven is always on alert for employers who will give its uniquely gifted men and women opportunities to work.

The EnCircle program is specific to Woodhaven’s neurodiverse population and offers in-depth training in the technology fields.

“EnCircle is like IT college for those with neurodiversity,” says Heather Harlow, marketing specialist for Woodhaven. “One individual who graduated from EnCircle used his tech skills to rewrite some code and saved his employer one million dollars.”

Woodhaven also offers several day programs that focus on a variety of areas: community integration, recreational, social, education, and wellness. 

The Challenges

All organizations — and especially nonprofits — face challenges. One specific to Woodhaven is community perception. Moving from a society that locked disabled individuals away in institutions to a society that embraces all abilities is no small feat.

“It’s a shift in what you’ve been taught and how you think, and that’s always a learning curve for everybody,” Baldwin explains. “There are misconceptions that I wish I could take away with one sentence.” 

Another challenge is staffing. Woodhaven currently has some 280 employees, but the ideal staffing level is 300. Its most pressing need is for direct support professionals. Training and certification is required and is provided once an applicant has received and accepted a job offer. 

While the state supports Woodhaven’s basic needs, those funds don’t go far. Participating in one or more of Woodhaven’s fundraising events helps to raise the individuals’ quality of life. The events provide for a variety of things from transportation to nominal Christmas gifts. Annual events include a golf invitational in September, the Zombie Pub Crawl during the Halloween season, and a soirée. However, regular monthly donations are Woodhaven’s life’s blood, as evidenced by 60 years of serving children and adults.

No longer “a tucked-away haven in the woods,” Baldwin adds, the organization is now a vibrant part of the community that embraces all abilities. 

Mission statement

To change people’s lives by empowering them to find and achieve success on their own terms.



Board Members


Tina Workman, president
Stephen Parshall, vice president
Leslie LeSieur, secretary
Ellen Nichols, treasurer
Dennis Palmer, past president


Natalie Hardin
Lea Ann Lowery
Amanda Miller
Dr. Rebecca Llorens
Marty Stedem
Dr. Thomas Dresser
Lyle Johnson
Shannon Stanek

1405 Hathman Place

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