Solvang nonprofit serves young adults with autism, special needs

By Gina Potthoff Kacik
Contributing Writer

Since the start of the pandemic, at the end of every day’s work, students at Hidden Wings would sing their favorite song together over Zoom: “What a Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong.

After closing its doors over a year ago because of COVID-19, the Solvang nonprofit was able to welcome students, teachers and staff back to in-person sessions in July. The hiatus makes singing the song together now that much sweeter, said Hidden Wings co-founder Jim Billington. 

Like many other organizations, Hidden Wings moved its operations online in March 2020. Unlike some organizations, Hidden Wings, which serves young adults with autism and those with special needs, was able to keep all its staff due to high demand. 

The nonprofit increased enrollment by five (plus a waiting list) and is currently looking to hire more staff to serve a growing number of students looking to find a job and a friend.

“We have moved slowly in bringing everyone back so we’re sure everyone is safe and abiding by the safety protocols that are — like so many of our companion organizations — much more protective than those recommended to the general population,” Billington said. “Our co-founder, my wife, Julia, is a front-line physician whose last 16 months have been consumed with COVID-19, and she provides weekly education and updates.”  

To reopen, Hidden Wings has taken a phased approach, allowing half of its students to attend job and life skills classes at its Solvang facility during alternating weeks. Students also met in small, distanced groups.

While completely virtual, Billington said Hidden Wings started a collection of more than 100 homemade videos from its own YouTube channel, Hidden Wings Live! He said they will continue to do individual Zoom sessions for current students living outside the Santa Barbara County area, and some of the Zoom sessions are even run by students.

Despite limiting the daily number of students to mitigate COVID-19 risk, Hidden Wings is doing more than ever. Some highlights: 

  • Increased fleet of passenger vehicles to accommodate extra students, COVID-19 restrictions, and the increasing number of vocational program training sites
  • Selected to receive an award for “outstanding leadership in the upward progress of people on the spectrum” from The Art of Autism, one of the world’s foremost online platforms for highlighting autistic creativity
  • Harvested lavender for a host of products that students produce and sell
  • Students will perform two plays: Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Romeo and Juliet,” directed by industry veteran Aimee Carrol
  • Resumed in-person hiking, therapeutic drumming, and involvement with the Therapeutic Horseback Riding Program
  • Entered into two new partnerships with local businesses to employ students, in addition to a three-year partnership with Tri-Counties Regional Center

COVID-19 gave Hidden Wings an opportunity to continue to work outside the box and to help a population in need. The nonprofit’s work is more important than ever, as about 1 in 54 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Santa Ynez Valley doesn’t have many places for adults with special needs, where they can be who they are and also be educated and prepared for all that they can become, Billington said. 

“This has been a myth-shattering experience, especially in the case of people with autism who are not, as the popular lingo labels, ‘champions of social distancing.’” He said. “People with special needs do not have a special desire to be alone. They are highly social, affectionate, and loving. For months all they have talked about is when we will be together again. It’s so special that we are now — on a rotating basis — all together again.”

If you’d like to learn more about Hidden Wings, contact Jim Billington at