United Way funding changes lives for children, families and community
By Jeff Keeling
Jimmy Johnson asks the question almost every day: “Is it Friday yet?”
That is because Friday is a day much anticipated not only by 7-year-old Johnson, but by his parents, his sisters, and the friends he sees each week at the ARC of Washington County’s Respite program at Boones Creek Christian Church.
“Are you here to take my picture?” he asked, before engaging in a friendly dialogue.
For six hours every Friday, Johnson, who has autism, joins around 10 other special needs children (and some siblings) at the church. Their care, provided by loving staff members who are a mix of college students and professionals, and all other elements of the program are funded primarily by an annual $42,000 allocation from the United Way of Washington County. Another group (clients can be in the program up to age 32) is served at Trinity Baptist Church.
None of the families in the program has any other services, outside of school, provided to their children.
For Crystal Johnson, who began participating this past summer, the program is a Godsend – a huge stress relief in a week of demanding days for the home schooling mom and her husband, Shawn.
“Their first day in the program, it was her husband’s birthday, and they hadn’t had a chance to have a birthday dinner for years,” ARC Respite Coordinator Kim Wheeler said.
Jimmy Johnson is personable, but he’s in a place of comfort and routine at the church. That’s allowed him to grow socially, and even develop a friendship with Nicholas, another child with cerebral palsy – a big step for Jimmy. It’s been a joy to watch for Lisa Hensley, a full-time mental health case manager who said her Friday evenings are a respite for her, too, from a caseload of mostly unappreciative families whose services are being paid for by the state.
“It’s my time away from real life to get to come here and get a break, have fun, play with my kids,” Hensley said as she prepared to do some painting with Jimmy. “It’s not stressful, it’s just fun. We enjoy it.”
Like Wheeler, and ARC Executive Director Malessa Fleenor, Hensley – who has a degree in special education – clearly loves the program, the children it serves and their families.
“Parents can come in and know their children are safe,” Hensley said. “They know they can show up whenever they want to and we’re arms wide open, saying, ‘please, let us have your child for awhile.’
“This is huge for Jimmy’s mom. She’s able to go out to the grocery store with her husband. One on one time with her husband and her baby (a two-year-old sister isn’t old enough to come to the program yet) is a big deal that she’s not going to be able to get when she has a special needs child in her home.”
The program started in the 1980s, Fleenor said. It’s always relied on United Way funding, unlike most ARC programs, which are publicly funded and generally include long waiting lists. Fortunately for the respite program’s parents, their wait for other services is eased somewhat by that six hours of down time every Friday.
For the parents of Noah Birchfield, a Science Hill High School student with autism who on this particular night is singing with gusto and enjoying a new visitor, the respite program broke a long string without a date night. “They were really excited about their first date night in 10 years,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler said she enjoys seeing the progression of both clients and of the occupational therapy, speech therapy, special ed and other undergraduate students who work in the program.
“They (the students) learn from each other, because each of them brings a different skill set, so it gives them lots of experience.”
Many of the children, Wheeler said, are quite isolated when they begin coming to respite.
“I love to see them grow,” Wheeler said. “When I’m getting them in the beginning, they’re very quiet, very to themselves, and it’s great to see them transition to being really active and interacting with each other.”
That transition occurs, ARC director Fleenor said, because the children are around caring professionals who see them for their abilities, and not as stereotypes of their disabilities. That’s an approach she hopes all people can embrace the way that folks from the two participating churches have.
“You’d be amazed when you start looking at them as a person and see what they can do, and not see the disability.”