Originally created 12/30/98

Easter Seals' key innovator retiring post



A computer banner proclaiming "Happy Retirement" lay across a leather chair and a stack of Christmas presents sat in another as Avys Billue cleaned out his desk at the East Georgia Easter Seal Society office Wednesday.

Although he's still officially the agency's head until the end of the year, Mr. Billue's last day on the job as a paid employee was Dec. 23. Sheila Thomas, who has worked at Easter Seals since 1969, will take over as the executive director.

"I've thoroughly enjoyed it," Mr. Billue said of his 36 years at the helm of the organization, which helps disabled adults with vocational testing and training and then aids them in joining the work force. "I can't remember ever dreading coming to work. I've made so many friends."

Mr. Billue started the Easter Seals program in Augusta in 1962. The youngest of 11 children from a small Georgia town, Mr. Billue learned about hard work on his parents' farm. His mule was his motivator, he said.

"I knew I didn't want to plow all my life," he said.

He worked his way through two years at Berry College, then was drafted in the Army. After the service, he attended the University of Georgia and got a degree in industrial arts. He started teaching school.

One summer break, he visited a Veterans Administration Hospital in Tampa, Fla., and saw occupational therapists working with patients.

"They are doing exactly what I'd like to do," he said he thought at the time.

He went back to school on scholarships through the Georgia Easter Seal Society and the Department of Rehabilitation Services. Both agencies required his time upon graduating.

According to a survey done in Augusta in 1961 by Georgia Easter Seal Society, vocational training for the handicapped was a real need here, so they sent Mr. Billue to develop a vocational testing program for people with disabilities.

"There was no such animal as vocational testing," he said.

They came up with a few basic tests and some hands-on job sampling to test performance.

From there, Easter Seals programs have blossomed. There are several programs the organization offers today -- from job testing and on-site training to community-based work adjustment programs that place adults into job settings. After a specified period of working in a certain workplace, clients may end up landing full-time jobs where they did their community-based work adjustment.

Easter Seals has several contracts with local manufacturing companies such as John Deere and Glit Corp. assembling items.

There are also programs in conjunction with the Richmond County Board of Education to teach special needs high school students job skills. As services have expanded so has the area Easter Seals covers. When it started in 1962, Easter Seals only served Richmond County. Today, it reaches 41 counties.

Mr. Billue's expertise in vocational testing and evaluation was called upon by Auburn University and the University of Georgia when developing their educational programs in these fields. He served on advisory boards.

"This really started vocational evaluation as it was known in Georgia and nationwide," he said.

Over the years, Mr. Billue has watched the pendulum swing. When he first started, there was little government money devoted to assisting the handicapped. The federal and state money flowed for a few years, and now cutbacks in programs have brought them full-circle.

Another program Easter Seals has is an equipment loan program, for items such as wheelchairs and other devices to assist the physically challenged.

In the beginning, there was a great demand for this service. The tide shifted with programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. For a time, many wanted new items that would be paid for by these programs. Now with cutbacks and restrictions in what Medicare and Medicaid will pay for, once again there is a tremendous need for this.

Mr. Billue said he has about 1,000 items currently on loan.

Mr. Billue, who turns 65 on Tuesday, said he doesn't have any specific plans for his retirement.

"If someone says, `Let's go to Texas and go quail hunting,' I will say `Let me get my cap,"' he said.

Yet, if someone says, "Come and help me at Easter Seals," he'll be there too, he said.

In fact, there's an office already set up for him in the warehouse at the Easter Seals building on Wrightsboro Road, where he will probably work as a volunteer coordinator. He's already soliciting for volunteers to help remove the Fantasy of Lights displays on Jan. 5.

"I feel good about my years with Easter Seals," he said. "I praise the Lord I'm in good health. I have mixed feelings about retirement, but I'll still be Avys and my brother's keeper. If I see my neighbor in need, I jump the fence to help him."