June 21, 2018: Pikes Peak Bulletin; by Larry Ferguson
Summer is a busy time at Zach’s Place. Trips to the Garden of the Gods, outings at the swimming pool, excursions to the bowling alley, visits to the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and North Pole Amusement Park and trips to local stores and restaurants fill the agenda.
“We believe in inclusion,” said Linda Ellegard, executive director of Special Kids Special Families, an umbrella organization that operates Zach’s Place, a licensed child care/respite facility serving families of children with disabilities. “We really try to engage with the community. We’re here to help with what families need.”
The center at 4795 Grandby Circle in northwest Colorado Springs has been helping families for the past 19 years, ever since Ellegard, a social worker and the mother of a special-needs son, and Linda Rivera, a foster parent of a disabled child, decided something needed to be done about the lack of daycare services for children with disabilities.
“We asked, ‘Why are children with disabilities being pulled out of their homes and placed in foster care just because they have special needs?’ Historically, when that happens, a lot of these kids don’t go back home. It just isn’t right.”
Today, Zach’s Place and a similar center in Fort Collins are the only two licensed child care facilities in Colorado dedicated to taking care of children with special needs and giving their parents a brief break from sometimes overwhelming stress and responsibilities. The disabilities include autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and seizure disorders. The children range in age from 2 ½ to 21.
“When we first started, we were serving mostly families of teens on the weekends,” Ellegard said. “But we began getting parents knocking on the door saying, ‘We can’t find child care. Will you take my child?’ Some were desperate. I remember one father standing at our door early in the morning telling us he was going to lose his job if he had to stay with his child all day.”
Services offered by Zach’s Place have proven extremely valuable to parents. For some, work is a respite from the constant care required to provide for a child with special needs. Even parents who have home care for their children can’t always depend on caregivers to show up for a variety of reasons.
“They know they can count on us to be there,” Ellegard said.
Caring for each child at Zach’s Place costs the center an estimated $28 an hour, Ellegard said, but some low-income families and single parents pay less than $5 an hour based on a sliding fee scale.
“We make up the difference with fund-raising events,” she said. “Without those events, we couldn’t offer these services.”
Staff members at Zach’s Place, under the guidance of program director Gail DeGroot and with help and training from the Shandy Clinic, which specializes in providing therapies geared toward children such as motor skills development and sensory processing, come from a variety of professional backgrounds, including nursing, psychology, physical education and teaching.
“It’s a non-stop job,” said DeGroot. A typical day finds children arriving in the morning for breakfast, followed by games and social interaction. At about 10 a.m., they usually leave for a trip to a local attraction or activity center returning at 1 p.m. for lunch before going home at about 2:30 or 3 p.m. Then the second shift arrives with some of those kids staying until 8, 9 or 10 p.m.
“They’re not all here at the same time,” DeGroot said. “Kids are always coming or going. It varies from day to day, week to week, and on weekends. Sometimes it’s an overnight stay.”
The staff uses the frequent daytrips to nearby stores and restaurants as opportunities to let the children learn and practice social skills because it helps youngsters become more active members of their families and the community.
“Social skills are the keys to success in our world,” Ellegard said. “During trips to the swimming pool, parks or bowling alleys, we work on teaching what is appropriate behavior in the community. The children have a lot of strengths and abilities but sometimes they’re not challenged enough. Learning those skills leads to success in school and sets the stage for higher expectations.”
As for the future, Ellegard predicts that more young children will need services like those offered as Zach’s Place.
“We’re seeing more young children, some of them under 4 years old,” she said. “Is it a hidden population we’re just now learning about or are caregivers diagnosing problems in children at an earlier age?
“We can’t explain it.”