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.
This post will not (although it could) be a treatise on the value of "alone time" for a healthy marriage. Nor will it be an ode to how nice it was for me to have a few days off from lunch-packing, carpool-driving and homework-nagging. There is no question I completely enjoyed my break from the kids. But my biggest discovery this past weekend was that it was the kids, perhaps, who needed a break even more.
For those of you who haven't yet seen it, the eight-week-long transit campaign, placed both inside and on the outside of buses, features a photo of an orange tabby with a stainless steel bar drilled into its head accompanied by the line "I am not lab equipment. End UW cat experiments!" Just as PETA hopes, the image is shocking and demands an immediate response.
If I had my druthers, I'd sit out the entire shopping week that follows Thanksgiving. Black Friday, for starters, has corrupted the fine art of bargain shopping and turned it into a gladiator sport. There is no percentage off that is worth losing sleep, or even worse an eye, over. Especially if you have kids in tow.
When you shop for toys, there is always the conflict between what you think is appropriate/adorable and what the child being shopped for might actually want/play with.
Many of the pop-culture seasonal touchpoints of my youth are completely lost on my kids. You see, while I may have memorized every word to both the Snow Miser and the Heat Miser's songs from The Year Without a Santa Claus, I'm pretty sure the only Rankin-Bass stop-motion Christmas special my kids have ever seen has been Rudolph.
I am so thrilled that the United Way is sponsoring a Teen Gift Drive this holiday season. Sure, teen "wants" often aren't as fun to shop for as precious baby dolls and sweet Lego sets. But middle and high school kids still "need" to feel valued and loved during this time of year. And helping a family in need to provide this for their child is a wonderful way to get in the spirit.
My 11th-grade and 8th-grade sons have heard "the chant" for years. You know which one I'm talking about -- the ESFY (U?) chant (I'm not sure what the parenting post rules are for writing two of the more forbidden four-letter words in the English language) that appears to have both Barry Alvarez and Chancellor Blank quite concerned.
There are many different criteria parents use when evaluating which pre-school programs will be right for their children. Some parents might be looking for an educational philosophy that stresses creativity and community. Others may desire an option that revolves around learning through play or is more academic in approach.
We spent hours poring over name books and checking for inappropriate initial combinations. We looked at meanings, variant spellings and popularity charts. And, as I am sure every parent does, we thought we'd hit the name jackpot with each of our kids. But there are always surprises.
A generation or two ago, the pediatrician was the guy (yes, they were mostly guys) who gave your kids shots and prescribed big bottles of antibiotics for every sniffle. Madison's Dipesh Navsaria is a different breed of pediatrician.
Gamehole Con will be the premier tabletop gaming convention in the region. And with Wisconsin being the birthplace of Dungeons and Dragons, as well as the nation's leader in gaming stores per capita, it kind of makes sense that the convention's organizers want the Dairy State to be known for more than just cheese, beer and bratwurst.
This year I will also try to ease up some of my previous costume concerns. Sure, the world is rife with inappropriate dress up choices for our kids; there is no parent out there that is keen on his or her child dressing like a pint-sized prostitute, even for one night.
This past Saturday, I took my youngest to hear Caldecott award-winning author/illustrator Kevin Henkes read from his latest work, The Year of Billy Miller, a short novel for the early elementary grades.
I was greeted at the door by Tom Moen, who has served as executive director of what he likes to call "Madison's best kept secret", for the past 39 of the center's 47 years. Located in the middle of the subsidized Truax Park apartment complex, EMCC, with its vast array of offerings for kids, seniors and everyone in between, is unquestionably the heart of the neighborhood.
Madison's Kashmira Sheth has written four award-winning novels for middle grade and teen readers, and a popular chapter book for six- to nine-year-olds, but right now her picture books are what she's excited to talk about.
A few summers back, my daughter, maybe 8 or 9 at the time, decided to take part in our swimming pool's annual water ballet show. I'm not really sure what initially piqued her interest in the somewhat under-the-radar, very much under-the-water sport of synchronized swimming.
We rarely included a stop at the Central Library as part of our regular outing. For those of you who've been in Madison for a while, I'm sure you'd agree that the old building was pretty run down. Not to mention, dark, cavernous and depressing. Libraries, at their best, should be portals to discovery, right?
My eleven-year-old daughter spent most of last weekend alone in her room, door shut. It wasn't a temper tantrum or an overwhelming need for tween privacy that led to her self-induced isolation, though. Instead, I didn't see her (except for meals) for two days because she was, in her words, "going through her closet."
Yes, the 2004 classic comedy Mean Girls is an absolutely delightful movie. But it's definitely not the smartest mother/daughter viewing as your child is about to enter her inaugural year of middle school.
Despite celebrating 30 years in business this year, Knowledge Unlimited Inc. remains relatively unknown in the community. Those concerned with closing the achievement gap in Madison's schools, however, may want to take note. This award-winning educational-materials producer, based in Middleton, is unique in emphasizing multiculturalism throughout its lines of educational posters, DVDs and children's books.