BUDDY BREAK FOR SPECIAL NEEDS VIPS
Aven’s smile beams every time he runs into the church gymnasium. His laughter echoes off the hardwood as he joins in arts and crafts. He makes everyone’s day as he shows off his first-grade skills, already reading and writing … impressive for any seven-year-old, but especially admirable for Aven who has Down Syndrome. Aven holds a special place in Stephanie Randolph’s heart, as do all of the kids who participate in Buddy Break, a respite program for families of children with special needs that she initiated with the support of her congregation at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.
GETTING A BREAK
Buddy Break brings trained volunteers together with special needs kids (VIP kids) for three hours once a month. While the kids engage “one-on-one” with their buddies in everything from music and recreation to arts and crafts, their caregivers get much-needed (and well-deserved!) personal time. “It’s really nice for the families to get to drop them off in a safe environment. They can go grocery shopping, take a walk in the park, catch a movie – whatever they’d like to do. It’s nice to give them that break, and on top of that, we have a blast with the kids. It’s really fun!” said Stephanie.
Stephanie, a Designer with Origami Owl®, also works full-time for her local county as service and support administrator. “It’s kind of like being a social worker – I get to advocate for people with special needs on a daily basis. My job has also been a good platform for our Buddy Break program – I’m able to connect with a lot of people in the county we can offer it to,” said Stephanie.
In fact, it was her day-to-day interaction with special needs individuals that inspired Stephanie to lend support to their families – and the fact that her youngest brother has autism and sensory disorder. “Even going to Kroger’s can be overwhelming for my brother, which makes for a not-so-successful trip to the store for my mom,” said Stephanie.
She values the extra blessings and joy these kids bring their families, but recognizes it can also be tough for caregivers to meet all the responsibilities – therapy sessions, doctor visits – while juggling day-to-day life. Back in 2013, she kept feeling like she wanted to do more, to make a difference, so she did a little online research, “you can Google anything!” joked Stephanie. She discovered an organization, Nathaniel’s Hope, that had created the Buddy Break concept in Florida.
After reaching out to them, the Buddy Break founders invited Stephanie down to Florida to observe their program. “I was mesmerized; I thought it was amazing! I came back here, and we launched our own version of the program two months later,” said Stephanie.
As a busy professional, Origami Owl leader, wife and mother of two (a preschooler and toddler), Stephanie doesn’t see Buddy Break as yet one more thing on her plate. Instead, this inspiring woman sees it as a gift. She funds all the supplies herself by donating her Origami Owl commissions, and manages the parent outreach, oversees the buddy training, and plans the monthly themes, lessons and activities.
She also includes her own family in the cause – her husband is an ardent supporter of the program, and her older son joins in the Buddy Break adventures regularly. “Not only do we serve VIP kids – we serve their typical siblings. I bring Austin, who’s four, to instill a passion for service, and he and Aven are now great friends!”
She added, “I think we’re being blessed more than the families are being blessed; the kids are just incredible human beings. They are so fun. They make you look at life totally differently. They see the beauty in everything, in the things we take for granted.”
In honor of World Down Syndrome Day (celebrated March 21), we couldn’t be more proud to highlight the Force for Good Stephanie has been in heading up Cincinnati’s Buddy Break. And as for Aven (who also stole Origami Owl Founder Chrissy Weems’ heart when she joined in volunteering at Buddy Break last fall), we couldn’t be more excited to recognize his sparkle, which has brightened our lives, as well.
For more information on Buddy Break, visit www.nathanielshope.org.
For more information on World Down Syndrome Day, visit www.worlddownsyndromeday.org