“Once I saw that I could make it work, then I knew the sky’s the limit. I hate to be defeated, and I don’t’ like to be told ‘no.’” — Teresa McElroy
She might not consider herself a pioneer, but Teresa McElroy is blazing the trails for women-owned businesses in South Georgia.
In 2008, after working several years at hospitals, nursing homes, home health agencies, and outpatient centers, McElroy gave up the security of a 9-to-5 job to open The Therapy Tree.
Her entrepreneurial journey started in a small trailer with one patient. More than 12 years later, The Therapy Tree has five clinics—Douglas, Fitzgerald, Hazlehurst, Baxley, and Vidalia—each clinic provides various services including occupational and speech therapy for birth to 21 years of age and applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy for children diagnosed with autism.
McElroy readily admits that starting a business has its challenges, especially the first few years when she got by on a “hope and a prayer.”
“There were a lot of lean years,” says McElroy, who received a Master’s in Speech Pathology from Valdosta State University. “I did a lot of research to find out how to get my credentials so that I could start accepting Medicaid and Medicare.”
Her determination was recently recognized by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) when she received the 2020 Rural Small Business Person of the Year (SBA Region IV).
Nominated by Walt Moore, area director of the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Valdosta State University, McElroy was recognized for her success and commitment to business expansion in a rural community.
“She is extremely passionate about serving others,” Moore says. “Teresa did not move away from here to do this, and she continues to build her business in rural America. She is a beacon of success for other aspiring entrepreneurs.”
With confidence in her professional knowledge, McElroy says the learning curve was on the business side. “I have many years of experience within the field of speech-language pathology but I didn’t have any real business skills.”
Through assistance from the SBDC, McElroy gained a better understanding of accounting, human resources, and strategic planning.
“When I started, I didn’t have any big goals in mind,” she says. “Over the years, I started thinking about adding a sensory gym. We work with a lot of autistic children, and having a sensory area is the first step in teaching the basics like following directions and being able to sit down and pay attention.”
In December 2020, The Therapy Tree opened its sensory gym at the Douglas clinic. The 4,500-square-foot facility provides an interactive space for autistic children to receive ABA therapy using specialized play equipment to enhance fundamental skills.
“Once I saw that I could make it work, then I knew the sky’s the limit,” she says. “I hate to be defeated, and I don’t’ like to be told ‘no.’”
In various studies, sensory gyms have shown to help children gain independence, improve communication skills, and strengthen self-care habits and attention spans.
“There is no other facility like this in South Georgia,” McElroy says. “It means autistic children will have a place to get services they desperately need.”