One of Jim Billington’s pivotal, life-defining moments didn’t really happen to him.
The life directly impacted was that of his young son’s friend, Ryan, a recent high school graduate who was autistic and about to enter junior college.
The moment occurred one night when police stopped Ryan on a bridge for driving too slow. The blaring sirens and flashing lights caused Ryan to panic, and he jumped off the bridge, taking his own life.
“I had to do the funeral,” said Billington, who at the time was the pastor of a large parish in San Mateo. “It still haunts me. You know you have moments in your life when things change you.”
The tragedy prompted Billington to think about what would happen when his own sons — two of whom are autistic — go out into the world after high school.
He and his wife, Julia, soon after moved down to the Santa Ynez Valley and started Hidden Wings, a nonprofit dedicated to establishing a bridge for autistic young people from high school into adulthood.
The Solvang organization was founded five years ago in the beautiful, relaxing valley environment, and charges no tuition to its 25 students, who are mostly middle- to low-functioning autistic with social and language development issues.
On a recent afternoon, a woman passing through from Los Angeles stopped at the group’s one-story house and inquired about its mission.
Within minutes, Billington had given her a drum lesson as an example of the artistic and physical activities that help Hidden Wings students connect and communicate with others — even if solely through the rhythmic beating of cloth-covered drum sticks.
“A job and a friend is the goal,” he said. “This is our life’s work. We want these kids to have the same shot as everybody else.
"Autistic is just a bad word. We focus on the gifts, not just the defects. We want them to know this is a home for them.”
Hidden Wings works to “unfurl gifts,” or talents, that are often overlooked when someone is labeled as autistic.
Billington said a “dropping off point” occurs after high school, when students no longer receive support and typically move home, don’t have friends and collect welfare.
Hidden Wings students come from throughout Santa Barbara County and beyond to take part in classes that promote bonding, physical fitness and identifying meaningful careers.
Drumming and horse grooming at the Santa Ynez Valley Therapeutic Riding Program are popular favorites of those enrolled in what is typically a four-year program.
Billington and his wife, a local doctor, help lead many of the classes, along with devoted volunteers.
Janine Fillipin of Santa Ynez began volunteering her time to Hidden Wings as a parent. Her now 22-year-old son, Weston, has autism and happily holds a job at a local grocery store.
“I have a heart for the broken wings, the children who just are outside the bubble,” Fillipin said of the nonprofit. “It’s easy for a child with autism to be there. There’s a sense of welcoming, and it’s a homey feeling.
"Jim is really good at finding what that child is interested in. You couldn’t have asked for a nicer couple to start this with the best of intentions.”
She said the group fills a huge gap in support, and she hopes more people will be inspired to donate time or money.
Rising costs might soon force Hidden Wings to begin charging tuition, although the Billingtons are still more dedicated than ever to the cause.
“We have given our life savings to this, up until the day we die,” he said. “Our commitment to these kids is for life. These kids have tremendous talent.”
Click here for more information about Hidden Wings and ways to help.