It's difficult enough to raise children, but the parents of children who have special needs face additional challenges that often keep them from tending to their own needs and adult relationships.
With one eye on empathy toward the parents and the other on teaching everyone else to accept those who appear to be different, D'Etta Kriel heads up Friday Nite Kids at Memorial Park Church in McCandless.
"Once a month, we give parents a break by taking care of special needs kids and their siblings for a few hours so they can go out on a worry-free date night, or just take some time for themselves," she said.
The program accepts all ages, from infants to 18-year-olds with various special needs.
Mrs. Kriel, 33, of Dormont, was raised with an older sister who was mentally disabled and grew up participating in a similar church-sponsored program in her hometown of Tulsa, Okla. When she and her husband Brad moved to Pittsburgh in 2008, the couple joined Memorial Park Church and Mrs. Kriel felt compelled to start a similar program in 2010. It began with 10 adult volunteers and four children.
Since then, the second Friday night of each month is known as Friday Nite Kids at Memorial Park Church's Clayton Center. The free program has grown to include more than 40 children, 27 with disabilities, and Mrs. Kriel has become overwhelmed by the obvious need.
"It's getting too big for me," she said, noting that the program involves more than 80 people -- every disabled child has a volunteer "shadow," and other volunteers help with snacks, art projects and more.
The majority of the families are not church members, Mrs. Kriel said.
"We have kids on a waiting list because we need more volunteers. Consistent volunteers are important," she said. Mrs. Kriel trains every volunteer, from teenage siblings to grandparents who enjoy seeing their grandchildren interact with their peers.
Volunteer Deb Gallo, 59, of Pine, said she gets more out of volunteering than she thought she would.
"I've seen miracles here," she said, explaining that the children are a constant source of inspiration. "The biggest miracle is watching children without disabilities interacting and forming real friendships with the children who do have disabilities. Here, they're all just children."
Volunteer Kim Wachowski, 40, of Shaler, said, "You see these children walking through the door, so excited to have an amazing evening of fun, love and fellowship. The kids with disabilities are not accepted everywhere, but they know that this is a safe place where they are respected and loved for who God wants them to be.
"And the volunteers who come into this have a wonderful camaraderie because they're supported on all fronts. You came in thinking you were going to help someone else, only to find your cup's been filled. When we work together, we learn where our strengths lie."
Many volunteers bring their own children to either help out or join in, depending on their age and inclination. Mrs. Kriel's 2-year-old son, Kalder, is often in the baby-sitting room in the Fellowship Hall building. When her parents and sister visit from Oklahoma, they become volunteers, too.
Mrs. Kriel encourages teens and young adults to get involved, and Claire Jacob, 16, and her brother Nolan, 12, of McCandless now make Friday Nite Kids a priority.
"I prefer being around kids like this because they have so much heart, and they're so happy," observed Claire, adding that she wants to work with special needs kids as a career.
Nolan said he has learned to relate to special needs children and appreciates the training he has received. "I'm able to help people who need my help, and that feels good," he said.
Anne LaVelle and her husband, Tom, of Hampton, are the parents of four children under the age of 9; two of them have special needs. When they first heard about the program, Mrs. LaVelle said she was skeptical.
"I thought it was too good to be true," she said, explaining that it's very difficult for the couple to find a suitable baby sitter. "There is a lot of joy in our family, but not a lot of free time for Tom and me to connect with each other.
It's so great to know that they are in a safe environment where they're not just tolerated but well-cared for and accepted for who they are. It gives us a chance to discuss other issues because we're not at all worried about our kids."
Mrs. Kriel said her greatest wish is to see similar programs created throughout the community.
Friday Nite Kids is funded in part by the church, and monetary donations help to defray the cost of snacks and other incidentals.
"This is date night," said Cynthia Stith, 50, of McCandless, as she picked up her 12-year-old autistic son, Christian, after the latest Friday Nite Kids session. Christian's 16-year-old brother, Ryan, sometimes accompanies him, but the program is also a good way for the teen to experience being home alone.
"The best part is the fact that when he's here, Chris doesn't have to worry about his idiosyncrasies -- no one tells him to stop," Ms. Stith said. She explained that Chris often is excluded and ostracized because of his behavior. "There's no problem here because there's a common understanding that everyone is dealing with something similar."
For information on starting a similar program or volunteering at Memorial Park Church's program, contact Mrs. Kriel at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jill Cueni-Cohen, freelance writer: email@example.com.