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Summit County: Group supports parents with special needs children

Kathryn Corazzelli
summit daily news

Parenting is known as the toughest job in the world, but being a parent to a child with special needs is a challenge many can’t comprehend.

“Industrial strength parenting is what I call it,” said Betty Sarber, founder of Families of Exceptional Learners.

Sarber organized the group a couple of years ago after moving to Summit County. Her 9-year-old son has special needs, and even though his needs are more moderate than they used to be, she still understands the struggles other families face.

“Even though Michael is pretty stable now, there are moments when I remember that’s what our life was like,” she said. “When we moved here, I reached out to some other families.”

FOEL is a group of parents with special needs children that provides resources and encouragement for each other. Sarber said while many in the community are very kind-hearted and giving, they don’t always understand what families with special needs children are going through.

“No matter what your parenting challenge is, you are welcomed into the group and you are supported in your journey,” Sarber said. “We get that your journey is difficult.”

Sarber said one of the biggest challenges in raising a child with disabilities is finding adequate and affordable childcare programs – especially when school is out. An acceptable program provides positive social experiences for the children and much-needed respite for the parents. Respite care provides short-term breaks for caregivers of special needs persons. One attendee said she didn’t have supplemental care for her two autistic boys last summer, and watched them 19 hours everyday. She said she wasn’t sure she could do it again this summer.

“It’s exhausting,” she said.

Saber cited one family who leaves for the summers because they can’t find adequate respite care. “It’s not just for the caregiver, but also for the child to get out in a social situation and be engaged,” she said.

Sarber said the problem is some special needs children are rejected from programs, or parents are asked to provide their own counselor during care.

“That’s a pretty big burden to bear when you’re a working parent and you’re not wealthy,” she said.

Another problem these parents face: Many children age out of programs once they reach 12 years old. The camps which do except them are sometimes too expensive, and Saber said many working parents just can’t afford them.

At a March 9 meeting, the group explored possible partnerships within the community to help with childcare. Representatives from Keystone Science School camp programs, the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center, and Easter Seals – an organization that provides disability services for children and adults – all attended.

FOEL’s goal is to put together a program for the summer that would provide a full day of care for six to eight children, 12 and older, two days a week.

“What can we do to make it happen for this summer?” Sarber asked.

Right now, the group has the possible use of facilities in Frisco. If this goes through, the Easter Seals have agreed to staff the space and direct the program.

“That’s a huge piece,” Saber said.

BOEC said they would provide supplementary activities outside the space – like hiking or canoeing – for the kids. Keystone Science School said it was interested in setting up camps for children with disabilities.

Sarber said the group is also looking for funding, so parents can afford the program if the space works out. She said she would ask families to pay $40-$50 a day, and supplement the rest through grants. Usually, parents would be looking at $150-$200 a day for care.

“We have a lot of different entities coming together to say, ‘This is a need in the community. What can we do to help?” she said.

Sarber said the state of Colorado is at the bottom of the list when it comes to funding programs for people with disabilities.

“We just want to make our community an example,” she said.

For more information, contact Sarber at (970) 389-0808, or e-mail her at bettysarber@gmail.com. Sarber hopes to have all interested individuals contact her before March 25.


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