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Local Volunteers Provide Respite Care

Oakton-based social services agency matches volunteers with special-needs children.

On a bright Saturday morning, the opportunities for the day seemed endless. What to have for breakfast, should the day be spent cooing at animals at the pet farm, apple picking, or walking along the Potomac River?

While these decisions seem trivial to some, they mean a lot to Herndon resident Janet Miller Kreutter and the two children she takes care of as a respite care volunteer.

"I want to be the person who brings some joy and happiness into their lives," Kreutter said.

Kreutter is one of dozens of volunteers who participate in the Therapeutic Respite Care program with the Oakton-based Northern Virginia Family Services (NVFS). The program matches volunteers willing to work with families who have a child with behavioral, emotional or physical disabilities. The volunteer takes the child for the weekend or on an emergency basis, so that parents or other family members can have a reprieve from the intensive caring needed for the child.

"Sometimes they just need a break," said NVFS director Sharon Frost.

Respite care coordinator Melissa Laird added, "Maybe they don't have a support system here."

During that time with the child, the volunteer may do activities the child likes to do. If the child enjoys swimming, they go to the pool. If the child likes to read, they go to the library.

"I realized how much I enjoyed being around children," said Kreutter, who has volunteered for three years. She discovered the opportunity after her organization, the Northern Virginia Community Foundation, started funding NVFS. Kreutter's adult children also encouraged her to volunteer. "I just love seeing the world through children's eyes."

The respite care program is designed to serve three purposes: to give the caregiver a break , to provide opportunities for caregivers to devote more time to other children in the home, and to help a child transition from a residential treatment center back into the community.

"How do you learn to be in a family if you don't grow up in a family?" Frost said.

Volunteers receive 30 hours of training for the program. NVFS checks a volunteer's driving record and asks for a physical.

"I think it's very rewarding. I think it's very difficult. I think it's very needed in this community," Kreutter said. "It would be wonderful if many more families would consider taking in a child. To be involved in a child's life, to make a difference is rewarding. They can find fun in very unusual ways."

While Kreutter found out about the respite care program through work, Arlington resident Michelle Miller discovered it after reading about it in her church bulletin. For two years, she has spent time with a 13-year-old special-needs girl who she picks up from her home out West.

"It's been great to be consistent and watch her grow," Miller said, adding that because the girl can't communicate verbally, they find other ways to communicate. "I get so much more from my time with her."

Calling their time together “Girls' Day Out,” Miller has gone on picnics and taken walks with her child, because the girl loves being outdoors. They have also gone to Miller's family reunions.

"It's actually been eye-opening," said Miller, learning about how much work it takes to care for special-needs children. "We take a lot for granted. My friend helps me not to take things for granted often."

Like Miller, Kreutter also spends time outdoors with her children, two brothers, because they like animals. They've played with Kreutter's two dogs and her friend's ferrets. Kreutter and the two brothers have also gone to the movies together, cooked bread and pizza, and played tennis. They also have evening rituals to prepare them to go to bed.

"My goal is to exhaust them," Kreutter said. "It's a way of diverting their attention and giving them the opportunity to be normal kids, happy kids."

Coordinators at NVFS said they're always on the lookout for more volunteers for the respite care program, as well as their other programs for foster care and community services. The agency itself sponsors over 30 programs and will celebrate its 80th anniversary next year.

"In this most affluent county, the nature of things is that the majority of people are doing extremely well and aren't aware there our problems," Frost said. "We're generally touching people at the worse points of their history."