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Nonprofit serving children with special needs innovates during COVID-19 to relieve parents of caregiver burnout

When ChildServe had to shut down group daycare and community activities, they adjusted and sent individual caregivers to families' homes.

JOHNSTON, Iowa — Most parents don't need to think twice about taking their kids along while out running errands. But for many families of children with special needs, that's not an option. 

Cassidy Thayer has two children with different abilities. Her seven-year-old has Down syndrome, and her nine-year-old, Kylar Mills, has a neurological disorder which affects him both cognitively and physically. He wasn't able to walk independently until this year.

"They both have special needs, but each one of them are unique to each individual child," said Thayer. "So there are challenges that I have with my nine-year-old that I don’t necessarily have with my seven-year-old, and vice versa for him as well."

Thayer relies on specialized respite and daycare services through ChildServe, a non-profit in Johnston, to help care for her two sons. 

"It helps a lot, because Kylar is not a kid who can wear a mask, so we are not going anywhere with him," Thayer said. "There’s no running to the store...you can’t really do it without that additional help."

She finds that help at ChildServe. She says it's the first place she trusted to take care of her child other than immediate family.

Yet as COVID-19 shutters many disability services locally and nationwide, ChildServe, too, had to close their group services at the beginning of the pandemic.

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ChildServe CEO, Dr. Teri Wahlig, says they quickly came up with a plan.

"Early on in the pandemic we were required to stop some of our group programs due to the Governor's mandate on group size," said Dr. Wahlig. "That impacted a few of our programs."

Since many of ChildServe's clients have special medical needs, the programs that were able to continue did so with strict infection-control measures. They also quickly developed telealth options.

One of ChildServe's most important services to families is respite care: care that provides caregivers of people with higher needs, like Thayer, a temporary break.

For her son Kylar, Thayer relied on group respite care. When COVID-19 made that an impossibility, ChildServe sent him an individual caregiver to his home.

"It's one more face that [Kylar] got to see, and that person was just there for him," said Thayer, Kylar's mom. "[The staff at ChildServe] all know him and they love him and he loves them in his own way. So it is important for him to be able to have that connection, and we don’t really get that anywhere else."

ChildServe was recently recognized as an Innovative and Exemplary Respite Service for 2020 by the ARCH National Respite Network and Resource Center.

The mission of the ARCH National Respite Network and Resource Center is to assist and promote the development of quality respite and crisis care programs in the United States; to help families locate respite and crisis care services in their communities; and to serve as a strong voice for respite

Dr. Wahlig says she believes it's because everyone at the organization truly believes in curiosity, joy, and hope: qualities of the children they love to serve.

"We are always searching for ways to do more and do better," said Dr. Wahlig. "I think so much of that is fueled by what we promise families--we believe in the spirit of a child."

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