‘Sometimes, This Is The Only Break Parents Get’

Jude, Isaac and Caroline

Jude, Isaac and Caroline have all participated in Friday NITE Friends. Jude, 13, loves theme parks and is a master at puzzles. Isaac, 11, loves the alphabet and balloons. Caroline, 14, loves sensory things such as beaded necklaces, tape and play-doh.

Friday NITE Friends at Custer Road UMC offers respite for parents of special needs, medically fragile children and their siblings

April is World Autism Month, a time when we all are invited to increase our overall understanding and awareness about a diagnosis that has become more prevalent. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control determined that approximately 1 in 59 children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). 

Carol Brady, the director of Friday NITE Friends at Custer Road UMC, sat down with us to discuss how her church’s program has made a difference.

How did Friday NITE Friends come to be at Custer Road UMC?

Lynda and Tom Guerrero had a child who was medically fragile. They realized the need for parents to get a break, so they spoke to Mark Craig, the senior pastor at CRUMC at that time, and he told Lynda to research starting a respite program. She did, and Friday NITE Friends was born. It was the second respite program of its kind in the United States.

How has your program evolved since it first started in 1992?

When it first started, we cared for only the children who were medically fragile or who had special needs. Lynda realized that in order to give the parents a true break we would have to provide care for the siblings, as well. Ten years ago, we also started a respite program for teens who no longer go to our regular program. It provides social interaction for teens with disabilities. It is run by teens, so there is a strict admission guideline.

Have you witnessed any attitudinal shifts in how Custer Road members have become more accepting of autism and special-needs individuals?

Custer Road UMC has always been very supportive of our respite program. Sunday school classes have volunteered and provided dinner for other volunteers. Even the senior pastor, Kory Knott, volunteers for FNF. The children are accepted by the congregation. One thing I love to see is teens volunteering and interacting with children with special needs. These teens will be the same ones to employ a child with special needs in the future because they are not afraid of their differences.

How does having a church-based program for the special-needs community a further expression of God’s love?

Having a church-based program for children with special needs causes an awareness of a growing population. When volunteers see and hear how much their participation helps the families, they are very willing to help in many different ways. We spend a lot of time, energy and money to nurture our children because so many of our hopes and dreams are centered around our desire to help our children have rich, rewarding lives. But for parents of medically fragile children, those dreams are only that: dreams. Luke 18:16 says: “But Jesus called for the children, saying, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not try to stop them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’ ”

Do you have any advice for other churches that might want to start a similar program?

I have helped several churches start respite programs. They should start small and watch the program grow. As long as you have the support of the senior pastor and are not afraid of a little hard work, it is all worthwhile. There are so many families that could benefit from a respite program. Sometimes, this is the only break parents get.

Published: Tuesday, April 23, 2019