Melissa Quinlan, Brunswick County Schools’ director of exceptional children, is an unwavering advocate for her students.
Melissa Quinlan is proud of her kids — all 1,700 of them.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Laura Glantz
For the past seven years, Quinlan has worked as the director of exceptional children for all of Brunswick County’s 19 district schools. While taking care of approximately that many children on a yearly basis, she has little time for leisurely activities but says she couldn’t imagine being more fulfilled or happy doing anything else. She exudes energy and excitement for her job, takes her position quite seriously and is a strong advocate for the children and parents she serves within her program.
“People with disabilities and their families are very valuable to our community,” Quinlan says.
Her desire to work with children started at an early age. She says she spent many years playing school when she was young, and as she approached middle and high school, her family did community service projects. As a teenager she spent leisure time at the group home with a friend’s whose father was the operations manager of the home.
“Seeing people with special needs inspired me,” she says.
Her inherent interest and the sum of these childhood experiences made working in education a natural fit. Originally from Georgia, she received a bachelor of arts from Mercer University and earned a master of education at Georgia State University. During college she volunteered in multiple day-treatment programs that served troubled youth. After relocating to southeastern North Carolina she began working for Brunswick County Schools in 1999 and has completed administrative licensure coursework at UNC Wilmington.
In total she has spent 23 years dedicated to special education.
Quinlan started out working in a day program for children with emotional needs and has worked and taught kindergarten through 12th grade in a variety of capacities in regular and special education schools. She also worked as a behavior specialist and a regional coordinator for student services and early intervention before working in her current position with Brunswick County.
As director for exceptional children, Quinlan assumes many responsibilities. She not only allocates federal, state and local funding and resources to all of the district schools in order to serve children with special needs, but also makes sure that the process is handled with fidelity and efficiency. She is in charge of day treatment programs, grant writing, the staffing of approximately 230 personnel and contract providers, and collaborating with parents, families and community providers.
“The most important function is for me to ensure I take care of the children and that we have in place the things necessary for exceptional long-term outcomes,” she says. “The children must and do come first. I really love the children, and they are truly amazing. They keep me doing what I do.”
Doing her job keeps her out and about, and she’s rarely in her county office. Quinlan is a firm believer in visiting every single classroom, engaging with the children and getting to know them.
“I always tell people, call my cell, not my office,” she says. “About 90 percent of the time, I’m in the schools.
“The most fun is working directly with the children in the classroom. It’s critical to interface with the children and schools in order to make those important decisions about programming.”
Quinlan says best part of her job is having the opportunity to see children grow, thrive and be successful.
“I have had the blessing of watching children with disabilities grow up,” she says. “I love seeing kids learn to walk, talk, make friends. …There is nothing more exciting than going into the community and seeing them working or being in a day program or going to college.”
Thinking about her students’ successes makes her tear up. She remembers visiting a past student who was working at Novant. He hugged her and said, “Mrs. Quinlan, you’ve been with me my whole life.”
Quinlan’s goals are to always look for ways to improve and keep the program moving forward. She sees transition services as an integral piece of the program, reminding others that children with disabilities are able to be productive in the community.
“Transition starts as soon as the child walks in the door at pre-K,” she says, adding that her team is putting efforts into those services and making connections with businesses to provide work for these students after school. “It’s important that businesses know that [special needs children] are a part of our community, and our community vendors have been very supportive.”
The programs and interventions support many types of exceptional children, from a nonverbal child to a child that needs self-care to a child that needs help learning how to read, and help them access their world.
Quinlan promotes a deep bond with the students’ families. She knows that at times they can feel isolated, so reaching out and being a support system for them is crucial.
“We make sure that we take care of our school families,” she says. “I am so fortunate that I work with some amazing families. Without their support, we wouldn’t be successful.”
She attributes the program’s success to all the people she works with and to the county itself.
“Our program is comprised of amazing children and phenomenal teachers and support staff that go above and beyond to facilitate our programs,” she says.
But it’s the children she most values, and she can’t say enough about them.
“Our children are truly precious treasures,” she says. “They teach us patience, kindness and, most importantly, perseverance in the face of obstacles.”