The Respite Center is a haven for families in crisis, 24/7

Shannon Heft has seen her share of difficult times. A 29-year-old single mother, she clearly delights in her two sons, Austin, 6, and Dominic, 2. But "When Austin was 3, he was a real stress in my life. He needed constant attention," says Heft. "I locked myself in the bedroom and called the Resp Center. They said to bring him in. When I came [back] to get him a few hours later, I was so happy to see him!"

"One of the world's toughest jobs is being a parent," maintains the staff at Madison's Respite Center. For the last 25 years, Dane County families in crisis have been able to count on the Respite Center as a safe place for kids to stay while parents cope with difficult times. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the center provides childcare for children from birth to age 14 as well as counseling and referrals to other social service agencies.

Since last December, the Respite Center has a new facility to welcome families. Situated in the brand-new Family Centers building on Madison's east side, it shares space with several other organizations dedicated to strengthening families (see sidebar).

Like many parents, Shannon Heft reports that her kids love going to the Respite Center -- and it's easy to see why. The spacious day room is stocked with everything from highchairs and playhouses to a pool table and electronic games. A kitchen at the far end of the room serves three meals a day plus snacks. There's a full bathroom where children can bathe before bedtime and three bedrooms decorated with colorful quilts and curtains. Pocket doors separating the bedrooms can be retracted so that large families can sleep together.

The new building was the product of a $2.5 million capital campaign. Local philanthropist and community benefactor Dale Lebowitz made the biggest donation of $2 million through her Purple Moon foundation, with other large contributions coming from the Madison Community Foundation and the Cuna Mutual Foundation.

Most parents make their initial contact with the Respite Center by phone. "We don't do drop-in -- we might be full," explains director Meg Miller. Over 400 families request time each year.

Parents speak first with a staff social worker (referred to as a family service worker) and make an appointment to discuss childcare needs. A big part of the family service worker's job is to connect families to other community resources -- over 75 different agencies dealing with child welfare, mental health, employment, housing, legal services and other needs. If the center is at capacity, the service worker will help the parent find alternative care.

"Some parents have specific agendas," explains family service worker Sheila Bailey. "They have doctor appointments, meetings with other social service agencies, or job interviews. Others are just overwhelmed." Bailey observes that most families who reach out to the Respite Center are coping with "multiple stressors" -- financial and medical problems, spousal abuse, divorce and substance abuse, to name a few.

Shannon Heft's younger son has serious health problems. Born with a rare bone marrow disease called black fan anemia, he has undergone numerous blood transfusions and several bone marrow transplants. Lack of money and parenting support continues to affect Heft: "I don't know what I would have done without the Respite Center. When I need a break, I call them. Sometimes it's just to get the house clean -- otherwise I'm doing it in the middle of the night."

"Everyone understands the need for a break from care-giving, but not everyone has the resources to get it," says Meg Miller.

While most of the center's clients are living at or below the poverty level, some of its clients have adequate or even comfortable incomes but may have one or more children with special needs. "It is extremely difficult to find qualified childcare for special-needs children," Sheila Bailey observes. Center staff have cared for kids in wheelchairs, autistic children, and kids suffering from everything from ADHD to cancer.

The Respite Center also serves as an emergency placement facility for the county or for families in an explosive, chaotic or disorganized situation. Children come to the center immediately following the arrest of a parent or when domestic violence or homelessness put them at risk.

Unlike many childcare facilities with high worker turnover, some staffers have been at the center for 15 to 20 years. As director for the last 22 years, Miller credits flexibility as the key to staff retention.

The center's staffers have an exceptionally demanding job -- not only do they perform the usual tasks done in most daycare centers, they carry out these tasks with children who are usually in crisis. When a child comes to the center, staffers make sure he is warm, dry, and not hungry or thirsty. Next, they focus on emotional needs, reassuring him that he is safe. Children have games, art projects and other activities that they can do by themselves or with a staff member. Each childcare specialist receives a minimum of 80 hours of on-site education, which includes topics like crisis intervention, managing threatening confrontations, grief and loss, and pediatric psychiatric medications.

Respite Center volunteers also play a crucial role in making a child's stay at the center rewarding. Childcare volunteers can make the difference between accommodating additional children in an emergency or turning them away because the center is full. They also give one-on-one attention while the professional staff focuses on more recent arrivals who are still reacting to their family crisis.

Volunteers receive 10 hours of training and work one four-hour shift per week or every other week. While the center asks that volunteers promise to work for at least one year, most have been at it much longer.

Staff and volunteers must be sympathetic to both parents and their children: "We're here for the parents as well as the kids, and we see people who are not at their best," says Miller.

Staffers provide some counseling to help parents have realistic expectations for their children and understand where their frustrations are coming from.

In this way the Respite Center serves as a force to keep families together and make them stronger.

Four agencies committed to strengthening families by preventing and treating child abuse and neglect are located in the Family Centers at 2120 Fordem Ave. Call any of the numbers below for help or to volunteer.

Respite Center, 608-244-5730
24-hour crisis childcare, short-term respite care and parent support.

Family Enhancement Program, 608-241-5150
Parent education and support at various locations in Dane county.

Exchange Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse
Home-based programs providing families with intensive support, parenting education, and links to additional resources and advocacy support.

Canopy Center (previously Parental Stress Center), 608-241-4888
Three programs: Families United Network provides support groups to strengthen parenting skills; Oasis Program provides group therapy to people affected by incest and child sexual abuse; Parent Stressline is a hotline available 18 hours a day, seven days a week for parents and caregivers who are experiencing stress or just need someone to listen.

comments powered by Disqus

More to read

Loading More Articles
No More Articles

Mama Madison: Earth Day awareness

It may be a bigger waste of breath than electricity to ask my kids to turn off the lights when they leave a room. If I've nagged them once, I've nagged them a thousand times. No, I've never noticed anything amiss with their fingers. But it appears they are physically incapable of flipping a switch to the "off" position.

Mama Madison: Parents should know and understand school codes of conduct

I want to say thank you to the Board of Education for allowing Maia to return to class, unquestionably the place she belongs, as well as to thank them for adopting the new policies. But just as importantly, I also want to thank Maia and her family for their willingness to come forward with their story.

Helping your kids stick with music lessons

Some clever-clogs is playing Rachmaninoff on the piano at a party, and there it is again, that oft-heard adult lament of lost opportunity from a dejected onlooker: "I wish I could play. I wish my parents hadn't let me quit music lessons. I was just a kid -- how was I to know?" It's a reasonable complaint.

A summer camp quiz for parents

If you're checking out summer camps for your child, there are many issues -- some obvious, some less so -- to keep in mind. Here's a list to keep handy when you contact camps and camp directors, looking for the perfect spot for your kids to have fun, relax, and learn this summer.

Mama Madison: Lessons in dining out

I know, in the grand scheme of things, that my kid issues, when it comes to dining out, absolutely pale in comparison to those of parents whose kids have special needs. Many kids, especially those who are on the autism spectrum, are disturbed by changes in their routine, or anxious around noisy places. They may not be able tolerate waiting for a table or standing in line. So unfortunately, many of these families just avoid eating out at restaurants altogether.

Mama Madison: Natural vs. un-natural parenting

It's weird to admit this, especially in a city surrounded by as much outdoor beauty as Madison. But frankly, I'm just not that into nature. I'm more of an indoor kind of gal. Give me an afternoon at the Chazen or the Wisconsin Historical Museum over the Arboretum or Olbrich Gardens any day.

Mama Madison: Theatrical talent close to home

Lavish costumes, gorgeous sets, a full orchestra and a concession stand where nothing cost more than two bucks and you have a pitch perfect experience at the theater. Oh, and did I mention the ticket prices were just $10 dollars apiece? One could afford to take the whole family for a live theater experience for less than an evening at the Lego movie would cost including popcorn.

Mama Madison: Race to shame

I think the first time in recent years that I've felt a real sense of shame, as both a parent and community member, was last Tuesday evening as I sat in a crowded elementary school LMC to listen to Ken Taylor, executive director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, and his colleague, Torry Wynn, present key findings from the 2013 Race to Equity report to our PTO group.

Hancock Center addresses bullying through body movement

It's Wednesday morning at Allis Elementary School on Madison's east side, and 16 third-graders -- 10 boys and six girls -- enter into an open-space classroom in typical wiggly, giggly style. Some are making goofy faces at one another, some are bouncing around hand-in-hand with friends, and others are just trying to stay out of the whirling-dervish path of activity.

Mama Madison: Get in the picture

Of the 789 poorly-composed, way-too-dark and out-of-focus photos currently living on my iPhone, I can count on two hands the number that show my kids and me together. And my husband is in probably no more than three or four of those.

Mama Madison: Welcome to the Parenting Olympics

Something kind of magical has happened these past two weeks during the Sochi Olympics. There is no question, debate or disagreement on what will be watched on television once all homework is done. Everyone in the family makes time to sit down together to watch an hour of so of the primetime televised games.

Mama Madison: Facebook's instant nostalgia fix

Truth be told, though, this month I'm feeling a bit cinematically fried. In some ways, I already feel like I've spent the last week or so at a film festival. A festival specializing in minute-long glimpses of ordinary lives all ending with credits that feature the ubiquitous blue thumbs-up. Yes, it's been the February of the Facebook movie.

Mama Madison: The kindness question

Just last week, on precisely the same day the Momastery post was getting over a million well-deserved views, Madison mom Suzanne Buchko was telling a similar story. Not on a blog but instead in the confines of the modestly circulated Franklin-Randall Elementary School weekly newsletter.

Toddlers take to tablets

Late last month, the Madison Metropolitan School District adopted a five-year, $27.7 million technology plan calling for all district students, including those in the primary grades, to have significantly increased access to their very own tablet or notebook computer by 2019. Some parents, as well as education professionals, questioned whether elementary-aged kids, especially kindergarteners who aren't even able to read or write yet, will gain much benefit from introducing yet another screen into their lives.

Mama Madison: Science or study hall?

This past Monday, had winter's unrelenting weather allowed, Middleton Cross Plains School District teacher Andrew Harris would have once again been at the helm of a classroom. After nearly four years of fighting his dismissal from Glacier Creek Middle School for viewing and passing on sexually explicit material on district computers, MCPSD has been legally forced to reinstate Herris, this time as a seventh-grade science teacher at Kromrey Middle School.

Mama Madison: MTV provides a teachable moment

In a study published last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research, academics have found that the 16 and Pregnant series may have played a significant role in the recent decrease in U.S. teen pregnancies.

Mama Madison: Planning for the MLK holiday

In our house, sad but true, we've rarely spent the Martin Luther King holiday discussing race, social justice or the power of non-violent civil disobedience. Instead, the third Monday in January has historically been treated as just another day off school, just another long weekend. And it's been a missed opportunity.

Mama Madison: The long vacation

It's not something that happens very often, but last Friday, as news of the impending arctic cold snap reached our house, my kids were rooting for Governor Scott Walker. They were rooting for him to take Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton's lead and cancel school throughout the state. They couldn't care less if he had the authority to do such a thing -- if he called off school, he'd be their hero.

Mama Madison: Cheating 101 at Middleton High School

Late last semester, as students were packing up their backpacks one final time before winter break, Middleton High School principal Denise Herrmann and assistant principal Lisa Jondle were co-authoring a note home to parents informing them of a widespread cheating scandal involving nearly 250 calculus students at the school.

A mindful way to parent: Keep it in the moment, and take a deeeeep breath...

Breathe in, breathe out. Have you ever been in the heat of a parenting moment with these words ringing through your head? Then you're on the right path toward mindful parenting.

Emails from Isthmus Parents feature event highlights, story links, site updates, and occasional special offers from trusted sources. Name and email address are required. Thanks!