Former teacher Melissa Willa ’98 created a network of trained professionals who help educators, families and children.

By Carol Marcy

Melissa Willa ’98 didn’t expect to establish a large business one day. She intended to be an elementary school teacher. Yet, by 2005, Willa had co-founded Gateway Learning Group with her spouse, Colin Davitian, whose background in finance and business development helped her create a company that trains educators and provides behavioral intervention services for families and children with autism and special needs.

“It’s tremendously rewarding to work in a field where you can watch a child learn to say ‘mama’ to a parent who thought their child would never be able to do so,” says Willa, “or to help a family delight in the natural back-and-forth of playing a game together.”

The San Francisco-based company has grown to more than 500 employees in 17 counties throughout California, with recently launched locations in Colorado and Oregon. Staff work with children and families in their homes, schools, communities or at Gateway Learning Group centers. Willa’s company offers applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy, a scientific approach that focuses on how learning occurs and uses behavioral principles to make significant changes in an individual’s behavior.

“For example,” Willa says, “to teach a child to request help, we set up a situation like opening a container to access a toy. We’ll initially reinforce the child turning to look at an adult or peer for assistance by providing natural reinforcement, such as access to the toy. Later, we might teach the child to say ‘help’ while looking at the adult. Then we might extend this to ‘help me please’ or include the name of the adult.”

This skill may be taught via sign language, a picture exchange, or a communication device, but the process of breaking down the skill into small components with repetition and reinforcement is the same. Early intervention can improve learning, communication and social skills, as well as underlying brain development, says Willa. Willa was introduced to and impressed by ABA as a Geneseo student studying elementary and special education. She worked with a local family who had hired consultants who specialized in ABA to work with their autistic son.

“This little boy’s world started to expand,” she says. “I was blown away by the power of ABA — the effectiveness for the child and for the improved quality of life it brought to the entire family.”

Willa sought out other opportunities to work with children with autism and learn about ABA while at Geneseo and taught general education for three years after graduation, but the scarcity of ABA professionals and the difference she saw ABA make was always on her mind. She earned a master’s degree in behavioral disorders at Teachers College, Columbia University, focusing on the applied behavior approach. Willa went on to help other teachers create model ABA classrooms and established a continuum of classrooms from preschool through high school for the San Francisco Unified School District.

Ultimately, Willa started her own company to bring ABA to more families. “I crave solutions where I can build something of value,” she says, “and help to lead and make a meaningful impact in my community.”

Throughout her career, Willa has been able to better people’s lives through education and therapy. Since 1999, she has donated to Geneseo — where she says she found her own path.

“My professional achievements were largely influenced by formative experiences during my undergraduate years,” she says. “It is an incredible feeling to know that your actions as a leader are contributing to others’ happiness. My time at Geneseo had a lasting impact on my career trajectory, and I will be forever grateful.”