St. Stephen Buddy Break VIP Isaac Schueler cheers after throwing the ball for Mannie, a therapy dog handled by Jo Johnson, seen in background. The third Friday of every month St. Stephen Catholic Community in Old Hickory offers Buddy Break, free childcare for children with special needs and their siblings, giving parents and caregivers a much needed break. St. Stephen is the first Catholic parish in the country to host Buddy Break, which is part of the national non-profit organization Nathaniel’s Hope.
As St. Stephen parishioner Holly Weatherford waited to drop her two children off at Buddy Break, she was “nervous, anxious, but excited too.”
Caring for her 7-year-old son Grant, who has autism and is completely non-verbal, is a challenging task, and she rarely gets a night off. “On average, me and my husband go out three times a year. … You can’t just call up any sitter. They would be lost.”
That’s why Weatherford was so grateful for the opportunity to drop her son and older daughter off at St. Stephen and enjoy a well-deserved break. “It’s so good to just step back for a minute,” she said.
Buddy Break gives parents like Weatherford a rare chance to focus on self-care and spousal relationships. “It gives us time to reconnect,” she said.
“It’s such a God-send,” said Jean Putthoff, after dropping off her 11-year-old son Jonathan, who has Down’s syndrome, at Buddy Break. “There is support out there,” she said, “but not a lot of respite care where you can say, ‘Here, take my child’ and they’ll know what to do.”
Friday, Aug. 19, was the sixth Buddy Break night offered by St. Stephen Catholic Community in Old Hickory; they host one every third Friday of the month. Buddy Break, a free respite program for families with special needs, allows parents to drop their children off and get a much-needed break while trained volunteers take care of the children.
|Buddy Break volunteer Rebekah Layne greets VIP Noah Ankey with a hug on Aug. 19 at St. Stephen. At Buddy Break, each VIP child is assigned one buddy to stay with them for the entire evening to ensure they are safe and having fun.|
Buddy Break falls under the umbrella of a national non-profit organization, Nathaniel’s Hope, that was founded by Tim and Marie Kuck in 2002 after their young son died due to complications from multiple birth anomalies. More than 150 churches nationwide now offer Buddy Break programs, but St. Stephen is the first Catholic parish in the country to offer this ministry.
Greg Karn, St. Stephen director of religious education, heard about Buddy Break from a nearby church that was offering the program and wanted to bring it to St. Stephen. Raised by parents who had big hearts for children with special needs, Karn inherited that same concern. “I thought, we need to be doing something,” within the church for family members who have special needs.
“The catechetical aspect is one side of it, and the other is respite. They can work together,” Karn said.
St. Stephen, a large suburban parish with about 1,500 registered families, makes every effort to accommodate all children with special needs into religious education classes so they can receive the sacraments and be part of parish life. On the respite side, Karn said, is Buddy Break. “If we can make one night better for one family, that’s a home run.”
After Karn’s attempt to start a Buddy Break program at St. Stephen stalled, new parishioners Jerry and Wen Marcec offered to help reboot the effort. Jerry, who has a brother with Down’s syndrome, and Wen, who worked with public school children with Down’s syndrome and autism, have volunteered no small amount of time to organize Buddy Break at St. Stephen.
|Buddy Break volunteer and St. Stephen parishioner Kiersten Moss helps VIP Samuel Roberts put together a train track. Buddy Break offers a variety of activities for children with special needs and their siblings, and gives parents a much needed night off.|
“We have such good support here,” Wen said.
Every month, about 50 volunteers are needed to care for all the children, or VIPs, as they are referred to during Buddy Break. Siblings of children with special needs are also welcome at Buddy Break, and each child has a personal caregiver or “buddy” for the entire night to ensure they are safe and having fun. Some of the more high-needs children have two buddies assigned to them.
“So far we haven’t had to turn anybody away,” Wen said.
“It broke our hearts to turn people away,” said Jerry, which happened on several occasions at the other church where they volunteered.
In addition to rounding up a large group of committed volunteers, the Marcecs must also ensure that all the activities are set up and ready to go. In St. Stephen’s former church space, children can have their face painted, jump on a trampoline, interact with therapy dogs, or run around to get some energy out. In another building, classrooms are transformed into hubs of activity featuring arts and crafts, musical instruments, board games, trains, building blocks and more. There is also a quiet room where children can go if they need to get away from all the noise and excitement.
Karn and the Marcecs would like to see Buddy Break expand to more parishes in the Diocese of Nashville, and are willing to share their experiences with other parish leaders who are interested. “Families could get more than one break a month and it would relieve that pressure,” Wen said.
Once a family registers for Buddy Break, they are entered into Nathaniel’s Hope national database system and can attend Buddy Break anywhere in the country. A current list of Buddy Break locations is available at: www.nathanielshope.org/events-programs/buddy-break/.
Anyone age 14 or older can be trained to be a Buddy. If interested, the prospective Buddy visits one Buddy Break evening to observe and to decide whether or not this ministry is for them. After the observation session, they attend a two-hour training session, which covers safety measures and disability education.
Trainees are given parameters and guidelines for working with VIPs, and are asked to fill out background check forms and other paperwork. About one-third of the Buddies at St. Stephen are trained in first aid and CPR, as well as AED operation. There is also a nurse on hand, Wen Marcec said. So far, they have accommodated children with a wide range of disabilities and have not had to turn anyone away because of their needs.
“Jesus said, ‘Let the children come to me.’ These children especially need his touch, and if we can give that to them, it’s a blessing,” Wen Marcec said.