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Tampa church offers a ‘break’ for kids, caregivers

Ashley Valenti and her buddy, Casey Decker, play with stuffed animals at Nathaniel's Hope Buddy Break at St. James United Methodist Church in Tampa, Fla. UMNS photos by Patti Garrett.

By Nancy Johnson*
April 9, 2007 | TAMPA, Fla. (UMNS)


Leah DePalma joins buddy Nancy Bailey for music time.

On one Saturday each month, the doors of St. James United Methodist Church open to children – some in wheelchairs, others in their parents’ arms. For three hours, they run, jump, dance and play while their parents take a much-needed break.

The Tampa church is part of Nathaniel’s Hope Buddy Break, an Orlando-based ministry offering support to caregivers of children with special needs. Each child is paired with a volunteer buddy for one-on-one time and attention.

"Here at Buddy Break, we don’t treat the children any different than any other child," says Sally DePalma, coordinator of the Tampa ministry. "We love on them. We have fun with them. We accept them for who they are and where they’re at."

Buddy Break is designed for children ages 2 to 16 who have special needs, including those with physical, cognitive, medical or hidden disabilities. It is named for Nathaniel Kuck, who died at age 4 from an undiagnosed medical condition and whose mother, Marie, started Buddy Break as a way to honor her son’s short life.

"Here at Buddy Break, we don’t treat the children any different than any other child. We love on them. We have fun with them. We accept them for who they are and where they’re at."
–Sally DePalma

During the three hours that their children are cared for at Buddy Break, caregivers get some time for themselves. Sometimes it’s for a manicure or pedicure; other times, it’s a few hours of solitude walking on the beach.

"I couldn’t believe there was anything like this. Now we keep coming back," says Janet McDonald, a mother to 7-year-old triplets.

"Last time, I went to lunch for the first time in two years. I sat there in a restaurant and actually ate. It was fun."

Two of McDonald’s children, Nicole and Dougie, are autistic. Caring for them has been a major undertaking that became even more stressful in October 2005 when her husband collapsed and died from a pulmonary embolism.

"Every day, I get up in the morning and the first thing I remember is that my husband is not here and I get this lump in my throat," McDonald says. "Then I realize these children need me. I’m the only thing they have."

DePalma, who has an autistic daughter, understands all too well. "Your day becomes consumed sometimes with just playing defense with a very active child," says DePalma. "You’re exhausted, don’t have time to answer the phone. You’re running to the door to prevent your child from running out the door."

Often, families of children with special needs experience isolation, depression, loneliness and fatigue.

"Our families live far away," says McDonald. "They don’t take much interest in my children. My children scare them. They consider us so needy and, without my husband, we are."


Buddy Break volunteer Barb Tooney and Clay Band enjoy their snacks.

Buddy Break offers a safe haven for such families while volunteers entertain the children with music, games and play time with pets. The kids can enjoy being kids in an environment that embraces them. Outside of St. James, it’s often a different story.

"Most of the time, you’re apologizing for your kid’s behavior," says McDonald. "I’m sorry she has autism. I’m sorry she’s touching you. I’m sorry she’s making noise."

The goal of Buddy Break is to minister to the entire family. It connects families with others who know and understand their struggles and sometimes offers outings and free services for the families, including the siblings of special needs kids.

The ministry is an authentic way to show God’s love to families who struggle on an hourly basis. For McDonald, it means a few hours of relaxation while her children get some much-needed attention from others.

"When I saw Nicole and (her buddy) was chasing after her and he was smiling and she was smiling, it felt good because he actually wants to be with her," she says. "She could feel it."

*Johnson is a freelance writer and producer in Tampa, Fla.

News media contact: Fran Walsh, Nashville, Tenn. (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


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