Program helps Navy families with children with disabilities

By TOPHER SANDERS | The Florida Times-Union | Published: January 2, 2013

Karen Smith was seven-months pregnant in July and walking the aisles of the wholesale store Costco when she received the call.

The voice on the phone said she and her family were no longer on the waiting list and had been accepted in the Navy Exceptional Family Member Respite Care Program.

"I broke down crying in the Costco," she said, "because it meant that God did answer my prayer."

The prayer was for a "nanny" to help her and her husband as they prepared for the addition of a new baby girl.

The answer came in the form of a program that provides eligible Navy families who have children with disabilities a trained child care provider for up to 40 hours a month at no cost to the families. Two of the Smith's children, Kallie, 5, and Connor, 3, are on the autism spectrum.

There are 74 families in the program with military members stationed at Jacksonville Naval Air Station, Mayport Naval Station and the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base.

The initiative is a partnership between the organization Child Care Aware of America and the U.S. Navy. Locally the Early Learning Coalition of Duval administrates the program and recruits providers. Jacksonville is one of five cities where the program is offered. It started here in 2008 with 16 families.

Chad Sykes-Burns, child and family resources manager for the Early Learning Coalition, said the program is meant to give back to families that continually sacrifice of themselves.

"These families are those that are so giving -- giving because they serve in the military, giving because they have children with disabilities -- and too often the parents may not take care of themselves," said Sykes-Burns. "And this allows them to spend some time with themselves, to have a date night and simply get recharged for all that they give to everybody else."

Karen and her husband, Lt. Cmdr. Tim Smith of Mayport, were expecting their third child and weren't sure how they were going to manage when little Kayla, now 14-weeks-old, was born.

The family had been on the waiting list for the program for 1 1/2  years when they were finally accepted. Karen and Tim said the news was a godsend, especially because Karen was pregnant.

Also a blessing, the Smiths say is that Rosie Taverez, their care provider, is someone they and their children adore.

"She goes above beyond and my kids love her," Karen said. "We're able to function better as a family with less stress because she's here."

The Smiths jokingly call Tavarez the "house manager" because she helps keep the family on task. She assists the family three mornings a week by helping prepare breakfast, getting children dressed and sometimes just keeping the kids company.

During a recent visit to the Smith's home, the first sight of Taverez is as a blur as she chases a giggling Connor around the house at 7 a.m. She also spot checks dad's placement of lunch packs. Dad had placed Connor's lunch in Kallie's book bag, and Kallie's lunch in Connor's book bag. Taverez made the switch with a smile.

The parents will at times use Taverez for a quiet evening alone.

"We can just go out for brunch or something simple," said Tim. "Or just go to the book store. It's definitely important because you go out and you just don't talk about autism or the kids and we can just be a couple."

Taverez also enabled the family to bring Kayla into the world with less on their minds, said Tim. Taverez stayed overnight with Kallie and Connor during Kayla's birth.

"Being able to see my daughter being born and not have to worry about who's at home with the kids, it's a relief," Tim said. He said Taverez's ability to assist with the older children has enabled Karen to continue nursing Kayla because Karen can take the time during Taverez's visit and quietly be with Kayla.

The fondness is mutual, Taverez said. She could barely speak about when she and the family, who have orders to move to the D.C.-area, will part ways.

Taverez's eyes watered and she simply said, "they are wonderful."

The Navy recently informed Child Care Aware that it doesn't want families to wait as long as the Smiths did to get into the program, so the Navy is providing additional funds to ensure families don't wait longer than 30 days. That started Oct. 1.

Navy families can call (904) 208-2044 or (800) 424-2246 to see if they qualify for the Navy Exceptional Family Member Respite Care Program.


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