DURHAM — Alex Castillo used to cry when his parents would drop him off at Friday Night Friends.
But this time, on Friday, his parents could hardly keep him in the lobby long enough to stick a name tag on his back.
ATTEND OR VOLUNTEER
Time: March 27 and May 25, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Location: Newhope Church, Durham
Alex, 3, is high-functioning autistic. And once every couple of months, his parents bring him and his little brother, Ben, so they can have a few hours off.
Friday Night Friends is a free respite care program for families with special needs children at Newhope Church in Durham. Parents said it gives them a blessing — a night without worry.
“It’s free for us,” said Katharine Evaul, whose 18-month old son Liam attends the program. “But it’s not free, it’s immeasurable.”
Ed Kenney brought his 5-year-old son David for the first time on Friday and said he was looking forward to taking his wife out to dinner — an activity he only gets two to three nights each year.
“We are excited to have a Valentine’s date night,” said Kenney, whose son has Down syndrome.
The program came to Durham by way of Elizabeth Gersuk, a fourth-year resident at the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at UNC. Gersuk started her first Friday Night Friends in Blacksburg, Va., in 2005 and has since launched programs in Roanoke, Va., and Durham.
Gersuk said she started the program because her older brother, Stephen, has special needs, and the two grew up attending a similar event in Texas. She said the program fills a need she saw in the community, one she would not have known of had it not been for her brother.
“Knowing that these parents don’t have respite care (motivates me),” she said. “Most respite care that is available there’s a fee for or it is only for the child with special needs. We care for kids with disabilities and their siblings.”
Relieved to see their children running into the arms of volunteers — many of whom are medical students or professionals themselves — parents said they were eager to make the most out of their three hours.
“It’s a blessing,” Evaul said. “It’s very difficult to find child care that can handle children with special needs. You can’t just get a teenager hoping to make a couple bucks.”
Liam was born 11 weeks early and now is overcoming developmental delays including feeding problems that cause him to sometimes choke on food.
“You need people who don’t panic,” Evaul said.
Gersuk said she hopes to expand the Durham program to include adults with special needs who live at home, adding that she is motivated by the gratitude of parents, who say they are uncomfortable leaving their children in untrained hands.
“It’s e-mails like that and phone calls that I get on a regular basis that say, ‘You are an answer to our prayers,’” she said.
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