The Anova Center for Education high school located on the campus of the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts suffered nearly complete loss in the fire of Oct. 9. The school was attended by nearly 125 students living with autism spectrum disorders, many of them functioning at a high level.
People with autism often need routines and stability to maintain emotional balance. Having their school destroyed could have caused even more trauma than that inflicted on others who lost homes or businesses.
Anova quickly adapted to the catastrophe. The nonprofit agency partnered with other schools to find room for autistic students.
Mary Beth Ludwig, one of Anova’s co-founders, helped lead the organization in the face of post-fire chaos. Ludwig, raised in Santa Rosa, is a CPA who worked for giant accounting firm KPMG and then Santa Rosa-based accounting firm Zainer Rinehart Clarke, whose headquarters survived in the Fountaingrove district despite burned landscaping. Ludwig then worked as a vice president for LaserVue Eye Center before co-founding Anova in 2000.
The Anova high school classrooms, photographed by North Bay Business Journal a few days after the fire, were left in rubble, though most of the main LBC theaters and buildings survived the flames.
When did you move into the classrooms at LBC?
We moved to that campus two years ago. (Sonoma Country Day School used to occupy the space.) The building was sitting empty. It worked out perfectly. We were thrilled to work with the Luther Burbank Memorial Foundation, a great fit. Our kids would go to the theater.
How many students?
Around 125. We were planning to grow to around 140 this year. We had about 60 when we moved in.
You have a son who has disabilities?
Yes. At age two, he wasn’t walking. I knew something wasn’t right. But now, give him a set of pipe cleaners and you could put him on a 12-hour flight anywhere. He will make something for everyone all around. He is 99 percent heart (now age 23.)
Where will he go as he gets older?
That is an important question I am working to solve. I started this organization because I needed help. I couldn’t sustain working in a professional environment.
How long were you with KPMG (then Peat Marwick, merged with Klynveld Main Goerdeler in 1987; now KPMG has some 190,000 employees)?
About two years in San Diego.
You were interested in numbers your whole life?
Yes. I knew I needed to do business because I wasn’t good at biology.
The numbers part of science you could do fine, but not the squeamish part?
I’d rather calculate the rings on Saturn. I could take sciences that way. Numbers were more comfortable than words. When I look at numbers or a financial statement, they tell me a story. I get a visual of what’s going on through numbers. I don’t see them as completely factual. To me, it’s an estimate, a symbol.
Human error makes the numbers sometimes not quite accurate?
Yes. There’s a bit of forgiveness with numbers. A partner from Ernst & Young taught advanced accounting. I actually taught most of it. He was a mentor for me.
Then you moved back here?
When I realized that my son needed help, I moved up here to a barn on my parents’ place. I went to work for Zainer Rinehart Clarke. He was going to a preschool that catered to children with differences. I picked him up often. He wasn’t comprehending. He doesn’t understand that there are seven days in a week — even now. He doesn’t know there are 12 months in a year. His emotional intelligence is higher — very empathetic, very social. It’s like he’s living in a foreign country. He needs someone to navigate his day. I used to put an apple next to his bed to remind him it was a school day and the bus would come to pick him up.
More business coverage of the North Bay fires and recovery: nbbj.news/2017fires