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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Time to get away

Lutheran program supports parents of children with exceptional needs

Not a blade of grass is out of place in this neat, peaceful neighborhood at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor in Washington.

The quiet ends inside Melissa Shenefelt’s home. Sons Vinny, 8, and Owen, 6, are home from school with plenty of pent-up energy. The two family dogs are barking their lungs out. Vinny hauls out video games and Owen squeals in glee as he slides and bumps down the stairs on his bare tummy.

“He’s my red-headed troublemaker, is what he is,” Shenefelt said of Owen.

The scene could be that of any family here in the Pacific Northwest, where there are as many Navy bases as there are major shopping malls. But Shenefelt has it tougher. For months on end, her husband Sean is not at her side to help. He’s a sailor on the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis and at sea most of the time. What’s more, Vinny has autism, an attention-deficit disorder and other conditions, his mother said. Owen’s conditions include chronic lung disease.

Slipping out just to buy groceries or to get one of the boys to the doctor has been “a little rough,” she admitted. So has getting away for a date night when her husband is home. The result for Shenefelt has been more stress.

Other Navy men and women who have children with exceptional needs and little support have become depressed, fatigued or unable to continue in their jobs. Marriages have become strained and broken. 

The lucky parents have relatives or friends nearby who provide relief. But it’s not uncommon for transitory Navy families to be isolated in their communities with no one to call for help.

Lutheran agency steps in

Enter the Navy’s Exceptional Family Member Program Respite Care, which provides active-duty parents who have children with exceptional needs 40 hours of high-quality, free help a month.

In 2012 the program provided 316,611 respite hours to 569 Navy families in a handful of locations, including the Pacific Northwest;  Washington, D.C.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Norfolk, Va.; and San Diego, according to Child Care Aware of America, which administers the program for the Navy and other service branches.

The Navy’s 5-year-old program has grown fast to try to meet the high demand. The most common condition among the children in the program is autism, followed by developmental disabilities. 

The North Puget Sound Office of Lutheran Community Services Northwest, a social-service agency supported by the Lutheran community and others, recruits and trains respite providers for Child Care Aware of America. Back in 2009, fewer than 50 families got help in the Northwest. Today 125 families are served in the Bremerton-Everett-Whidbey Island area.

And it’s still not enough.

“Our families currently are waiting four to six months,” said Nancy Ashton-King, Navy respite coordinator for Lutheran Community Services Northwest.


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