Here’s a guest post from Amy Massey, a long-time reader, a host mom, and now a placement director with A.P.EX PROaupair. Amy writes about her experiences as a host parent who — like her backyard neighbor– has a child with special needs. Please note that this post isn’t sponsored by PROaupair, nor is it an advertisement for this agency.
My friend Cindy and I have a lot in common.
We both juggle work, three children, and husbands who travel. We both have a child with special needs. We are both host parents to German au pairs who are Occupational Therapists. And we are neighbors.
Imagine how surprising it was to make these connections when I moved to Newton, MA three years ago and met our backyard neighbor, Cindy. It took no time at all for us to connect the dots and find commonalities in raising children, managing the complexities of life with children who have special needs, and hosting au pairs in our respective homes.
But our relationship really flourished when we built a bridge. Our backyards are separated by a small stream that runs down the property line. The stream proved to be challenging for our abled children to cross, and was even more of a challenge for our children with disabilities. When it was time to renovate my family’s home, we had a bridge built to span the stream and connect the two backyards.
The impact of the bridge was noticeable. First came the gradual, but assumed addition of new backyard goodies which were happily shared– a vegetable garden, trampoline, makeshift putting green, tree house, swing set, and a dog to love. Over time, the sounds of squealing children increased and the kids would spend more and more time going back and forth freely between houses.
Thanks to the bridge, our yards have essentially doubled in size and our families find more opportunities to get together.
Combined family dinners were next. Nearly, two years later, there are a multitude of neighborhood gatherings and BBQ’s on our lawns. As we all spent more time together, our respective au pairs became friends and soon built a network of au pairs that would gather on these occasions. Now it’s a frequent occurrence for a host of au pairs to gather on the dual lawns for play dates and outdoor yoga sessions. When summer ends our families share Christmas’, Shabbat dinner blessings, Passover meals, German traditions with our au pairs, ice skating in the yard, and adaptive ski trips to Loon Mountain.
Our families have a special connection.
Both Cindy’s family and mine host professional au pairs who are trained to work with children who have special needs.
Our family has been hosting Anne Falkenburg (24), an occupational therapist from Germany spending a year in the U.S. as a professional special needs au pair. Anne has developed a special relationship with my three children including my ten year old son, Devon. Devon was born with a rare chromosomal abnormality and is globally delayed. Anne has high aspirations for her relationship with Devon. As she explains,
“I want him be able to dress himself independently. I want him to buckle his own seat belt and brush his teeth. This has just been a wonderful experience. ”
After being with the our family for 9 months, Anne has succeeded in working with Devon to achieve every one of her goals.
“Having a professional au pair who is a therapist has allowed us to breathe. It allows us to have moments and experiences where we feel more like typical parents. My daughter needs assistance with all daily living tasks and it can feel all consuming. If my energy is always zapped with this one child, my concern is that my other children may feel as though their needs are not as important as their sister’s.”
Professional au pairs have degrees in such varied backgrounds as occupational therapy, physical therapy, special needs education, and nursing. They are paired with U.S. families who have one or more children with special needs for 1-2 years while gaining practical work experience in their field. At a minimum, these care professionals have a three year degree which includes two years of practical training & internships.
Having a child with special needs requires patience, consistency, flexibility & reliability. Being able to find caregivers, friends, and neighbors who not only understand these challenges but also help you meet them has made meeting these challenges a bit easier.
And the bridge? The bridge has brought us more than a bigger yard and a shared party space.
The bridge has helped us create a safe haven for both of our families.
In a culture where it’s assumed that children walking outdoors unattended are not safe, a bridge has given all of our kids the freedom to be independent, run freely between houses without notice, and feel loved outside of their home.
The children who have special needs have an automatic friend in each other.
Their siblings have a place where their family isn’t so unique.
The professional au pairs have the chance to support each other. They can connect to discuss their challenges and share ideas on how to better reinforce the therapies they attend with the children at home.
And Cindy & I have a friend in each other, an sympathetic ear to listen, and a place to escape to on a bad day.
You might ask whether building a wooden bridge was really necessary. Couldn’t we have jumped over the stream, or gone around the corner to knock on each other’s front doors? Wasn’t what we all had in common enough to keep us connected?
What is it about a permanent bridge, even something as small as this 3 by 10 foot wooden walkway, that has made such a difference?
The bridge between our yards spans a small stream. But that stream suggests that our yards and our lives should be kept separate.
That stream suggests that crossing is not safe.
And the bridge? The bridge makes it safe to cross over into each other’s yards and into each other’s lives. The bridge makes it easy to create a shared space to support each other. The bridge makes our yards into one big space, where we can invite the rest of the neighborhood and expand the friendships between all of our families.
The bridge reminds us that the connection we seek is already there.
Amy Massey is the Director of Placements with A.P.EX PROaupair, the only U.S. Department of State designated Special Needs Au Pair Program. A.P.EX PROaupair has strong ties with German non-profit and education institutions such as the German Red Cross and places screened care professionals with families who have children with special needs.
Cindy Kaplan is a certified Parent Coach, Family Therapist, and a licensed yoga practitioner for children with special needs.
To learn more about hosting a professional au pair, contact Amy Massey, A.P.EX PROaupair’s Placement Director at email@example.com, or visit http://specialneedsaupair.com/