By April Charlton

Contributing Writer

A unique Solvang-based school has spread its wings to partner with Tri-Counties Regional Center and move into a new chapter for teens and young adults on the autism spectrum.

For the first time since opening its doors nearly a decade ago to people in the Santa Ynez Valley living with autism and other special needs, as well as their parents, Hidden Wings will offer a full-time program. That is something that the founders, the Rev. Jim Billington and his wife, Julia, could never do before.

Classes will now be offered from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and an occasional Saturday, beginning Aug. 13.

“We have always had bunched-up classes on certain days, but the continuity of a community is very, very important” for people with autism, Billington said.

The partnership between Hidden Wings and Tri-Counties Regional Center is the first of its kind for the Santa Ynez Valley, Billington added.

“The basic premise is, we are going to continue to do most of the things that we already do but we are going to receive money from the Department of Social Services as it is channeled through the Regional Center,” Billington said.

The Hidden Wings headquarters at 517 Atterdag Road in downtown Solvang looks more like a home than a business, with soft lighting, cool air and students’ paintings and photographs adorning the walls.

“We aren’t a day center,” he added. “We are a community center. Here’s the basic idea: ‘If you are autistic and come in here, this is normal.’ We have behavioral guidelines …, but this is a place where you can be you. We believe that gives them a sense of security so they can go out, find a job, find something satisfying.”

Hidden Wings classes are open to high school graduates with developmental disabilities enrolled at the Tri-Counties Regional Center. People who are not enrolled can pay privately.

The two main goals for students at the Solvang-based school is for them to become gainfully employed — the goal is to have a job within two years of starting classes at Hidden Wings — and to find a friend, which can take more time.

“We want every person on the spectrum that has graduated or aged out of the high school system to have two things: a job and a friend,” Billington said. “We focus on the gifts and not the deficits. You can spend your life trying to fix their deficits or you can spend 80 percent of your time focusing on their gifts.”

While at Hidden Wings, students have the opportunity to work or intern at businesses in the Santa Ynez Valley and also learn job-specific skills. They will also participate in specialized music therapy and physical education to help build teamwork, fitness and social skills.

“All of these things help make our students integrated into society, and when they are integrated into society, they are more likely to be employed and less likely to be misinterpreted,” Billington said, “And by misinterpreted … I mean getting in trouble with the law.”

Courses also focus on developing independent living skills, with students participating in everything from kayaking to swimming and horse grooming to academics. At the end of the day, everyone leaves exhausted, he said.

By partnering with the Regional Center, Billington said, even more people across the valley and into Lompoc will be able to benefit from Hidden Wings and its services because the agency has agreed to underwrite transportation for the nonprofit organization, which is a huge benefit.

He estimates since opening the doors to Hidden Wings in 2009 nearly 1,000 people with some form of autism have come through the doors.

Activities that will be part of the new fall classes will be held at the Solvang headquarters and other sites throughout the valley, with limited transportation provided to and from the downtown site.

“One of the big, big hurdles for people coming here is transportation,” Billington said. “They don’t drive. They aren’t used to public transportation.”

The Billingtons are looking forward to the new opportunities that partnering with Tri-County Regional Center will bring to not only Hidden Wings but also to its students and those that will come through the doors in the future.

“We are very enthusiastic about this new partnership,” Billington said. “We found the people at Tri-Counties to be extremely open, friendly and enthusiastic about having something in the valley. Like it says in the Bible, ‘One stick is brittle, two is stronger and a bunch of sticks cannot be broken.’ If we work together, we do better things.”

For more information, call Billington at 805-705-3918 or email him at For more information, go to