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.
The recent shift in the weather is just another sign that autumn is fast approaching. That means one of my favorite activities is just around the corner -- apple picking. My husband and I have been picking apples every fall since before our kids were born.
I have a lot of questions about what to put on my eight-month-olds' plates -- and, if I'm honest, a deep and abiding fear of putting the wrong thing there. Did I start them on solid foods at the right time? What's the deal with baby-led weaning -- how much self-feeding should they be doing? At what age should I give them potential allergens like shellfish or nut products?
Lily the potbellied pig arrived at Heartland Farm Sanctuary blind, lethargic and too overweight to walk. The children of Heartland's summer day camp program took it upon themselves to put the curl back in her tail.
Is it just me or does each summer seem to go by quicker than the last? The end of summer is upon us and for many families this means the start of a new school year.
This past week, on the way to the grocery store, my daughter asked what I believed she thought would be a innocuous question, "Mom, when are we going back-to-school shopping?"
Volunteering with the Young Writers Summer Camp this past week really helped me to remember how utterly creative kids can be when encouraged to come up with their own ideas and use their own words.
This past week I gleefully accepted an offer for new job on the UW-Madison campus. My kids are getting are older and I guess I've felt for a while now that it was time to figure out what would be next for me on the professional front.
"Kids spend so much time in and around school, it's the only place where some have a chance to develop an appreciation for a healthy lifestyle," says Katie Hensel, founder and executive director of Tri 4 Schools.
"I'm envious, mom," said my twelve-year-old daughter as she hopped in the car after theater camp last week. "All the other kids in my group seem to really like, and to be really good at, singing, dancing and acting. But I think all those things are just okay."
"People are looking to book space here all the time," says Remy Fernández-O'Brien, communications and facilities coordinator for the Lussier Community Education Center, a private, nonprofit community center on Madison's west side. "They want to throw their child's first birthday party here or hold a Girl Scout meeting. We're really busy year-round, but it's especially lively here in the summer."
Last week, in response to the county-wide Sleep Safe, Sleep Well public health campaign that encourages parents to "share the room, not the bed" with their sleeping infants, Isthmus contributor Ruth Conniff penned a lovely opinion piece in defense of bed sharing entitled "Confessions of a Co-Sleeper."
As much as I'd like to believe there is latent genius in my daughter's early finger paintings, I'm pretty sure her works are not distinguishable from those created by the pointer fingers and pinkies of thousands of other children from across the world.
Seeing Romeo and Juliet this past weekend was a definite reminder that I need to prepare for something that might resemble a (near) West Side Story around our place pretty soon.
All during childhood, we calmly tell our kids they don't need to be afraid of the dark, thunder or the monster under the bed. But it's pretty hard to keep your parental cool when your kid is about to embark on the one thing that terrifies you. I knew the problem wasn't really with him. It was with me.
Last January, when temperatures dipped below minus 30 and most people between the ages of 16 and 24 did anything to stay inside, a small yet sturdy group of at-risk teenage boys and young men stacked wood and managed controlled burns at Festge County Park near Cross Plains. Five months later, following a temperature swing of more than 100 degrees, Isthmus found some of those same guys removing invasive honeysuckle and buckthorn at Lake View Hill County Park on Madison's north side.
The first week of summer break at our place usually comes and goes without incident. At times, one could argue, it even verges on pleasant. I have no school lunches to pack and the kids have no 7 a.m. buses to catch.
Have you tried getting anywhere on either Verona Road or East Johnson lately? I'm pretty sure a six-month old could crawl to Fitchburg, or across the isthmus, in less time that it takes me to drive there these days.
As soon as the door closed behind him, I poured myself a cup of the coffee he had made and took a moment to let the enormity of what just happened sink in. My son was ready that morning despite my inability to properly set an alarm clock. My kid was ready that morning without nudging, cajoling, or reminding. He was ready, even when I wasn't.
For the past 17 years or so (i.e., since I've had kids), I haven't made books the priority in my life I know they should be. It's not that I don't try. Just this past weekend I had the best of intentions of picking up, and even finishing, I am Malala, this year's UW-Madison's Go Big Read pick. But the copy still sits untouched on my nightstand.
The longest day of the year is upon us. For those of you keeping track, the sun will rise at 5:18 a.m. and set at 8:41 p.m. on Saturday, June 21. All that daylight, courtesy of the annual summer solstice, will provide the perfect backdrop for Make Music Madison, a daylong event featuring hours and hours of free performances in nearly every corner of the city.