When Kim Strunk opened her first autism therapy clinic in Kokomo called Hopebridge in 2005, it was housed inside a small space near Walmart and serviced only a handful of families.
Fast forward to today, and Hopebridge has 29 centers in four states. The company employs in total 880 therapists and other workers, and services more than 2,000 families every day.
In just 13 years, Hopebridge has expanded to become one of the top five largest autism service companies in the U.S., and is the fastest growing company of its kind in the nation. In the last two years alone, 14 new centers have opened in locations across the Midwest.
Now, that explosive growth is on display at its home facility in Kokomo.
Last month, Hopebridge moved into a new 15,000-square-foot renovated space at 1558 E. Boulevard St., which is located on the backend of the Kokomo Town Center mall. The move more than doubled the size of its former location at 625 N. Union St.
The expansion is also doubling the number of therapists at the center, which is now set to hire 40 to 50 more workers. That will allow Hopebridge to service up to 80 patients. That’s 40 more than the former clinic.
Strunk, who now lives with her family in Greentown and serves as the company’s chief clinical officer, said it’s been amazing to watch the company grow so quickly. But that growth also indicates something alarming.
“It’s a little bit of a bittersweet moment,” she said during a recent interview from inside a conference room at their new Kokomo facility. “While the success is great, it’s also kind of sad to me, because there just continues to be such a great need.”
That need is something Strunk first recognized when she started working with infants and toddlers with developmental delays or disabilities in Howard County as part of an early intervention program.
Her job as an occupational therapist took her into the homes of families all around the area to help kids who had autism or other behavioral challenges. The work gave her a special insight into their needs – and also alerted her to a real problem in the area’s autism services.
The problem was a simple one: There weren’t any facilities that offered the kind of intensive therapy young children with autism needed. So in 2005, Strunk opened her own clinic near Walmart to do just that.
“When you’re in a family’s home every week, you really get to know them and see their day-to-day challenges and struggles and obstacles from a totally different perspective,” Strunk said. “I think that really shaped my desire to want to help them.”
Strunk adopted a therapy approach called applied behavior analysis, which applies techniques based upon the principles of learning to change behavior. The idea is to provide personalized therapy to kids as young as 3 who have autism or other behavioral challenges and help them transition into a school environment.
That’s done by designing a space that encourages kids to play and interact, and learn while they’re doing it.
“If you walk through the center, you get a sense of how this works,” Strunk said. “It’s always about creating an environment of play. The way you design the space has a lot to do with it. For us, designing a space that fosters a child’s ability to really explore and learn from their environment enhances our ability to impact their behavior.”
That philosophy is on full display at the new Kokomo facility. Therapy rooms are filled with ball pits, tricycles and other toys. In the middle of the center is a huge open space with a large, indoor playset complete with slides, swings and climbing bars.
It’s an approach that caught on like wildfire when Strunk opened her first center in Kokomo in 2005. After just four years, the demand had grown so large that she moved into their most recent 7,500-square-foot facility on North Union Street.
Strunk also started opening other centers in cities such as Marion, Fort Wayne and Greenwood so families in those areas didn’t have to drive to Kokomo for therapy.
In the beginning, she even provided families free sessions who couldn’t afford the applied-behavioral therapy for their child.
“It was probably not the smartest business model, but my heart was to help these families,” she said. “I knew what they needed. I just needed to figure out how to get it for them.”
That passion pushed Strunk to keep opening more and more centers – and opening them in cities and towns where families couldn’t necessarily afford the therapy.
“The heartbreak for me was working with these families where I was in their home and could see their struggles and life dealing with children with autism,” Strunk said. “Then, economically, they had no way of accessing the services they needed.”
That changed in part in 2011, when state legislators passed a law requiring private insurance companies to cover behavioral analysis therapy. But what really opened the door for early autism intervention, she said, was a change in Indiana Medicaid three years to cover behavioral therapy.
“If you look at our footprint now, we’re not just picking the affluent cities,” Strunk said. “We’ve strategically picked communities where families don’t necessarily have the resources for this treatment.”
Strunk said those changes to insurance, coupled with the formation of a 15-person management team at Hopebridge, has accelerated the company’s explosive growth. Just this week, in fact, Hopebridge is opening its newest center in Atlanta, Georgia.
And there aren’t any plans to slow down. Strunk said the company intends to keep expanding to any location in the country where there is a need for the kind of intensive autism therapy they provide.
“If the demand continues, I want to be able to meet that demand, whether that’s here in Kokomo or across the country,” she said. “As long as there is a demand, I feel like we have a service that is valuable and can meet those needs.”