by Monica Mendoza
21st Space Wing Public Affairs staff writer
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Air Force wife and mom, Kathleen Bleisch, sat back and watched her children pet horses at the Christ Haven Lodge in Florissant, Colo. The children were relaxed, laughing and enjoying the moment, she said.
Her family was one of five from Peterson Air Force Base invited by the lodge owners for a free weekend get-away. The lodge hosts free “Special Family Weekends” five times a year specifically for parents of children with special needs. During these special family weekends the lodge is known as “Chuckie’s Place” – named after the lodge owner’s sibling who has special needs.
For the March 18 weekend, the lodge owners invited Peterson AFB parents with children who have developmental delays. Other weekends might be designed specifically for children with other disabilities. Weekend retreats are for the entire family, including siblings who may not have disabilities.
“A lot of parents of children with special needs feel isolated from other parents,” said Jackie Wickham, Peterson’s Exceptional Family Member Program coordinator. “But, as soon as they walked in there, it just didn’t matter.”
Ms. Wickham, who works at the Airman and Family Readiness Center, connects families with special needs to resources and agencies on and off base. She puts parents in touch with local and state agencies that help people with needs from traumatic brain injury to behavioral issues. She also helps guide families through such things as understanding and completing the Medicaid waivers or the Extended Care Health Option through the TRICARE program.
In 2010, the Air Force added 35 EFMP coordinators to complement its Special Needs Identification and Coordination Program, which ensures military members receive the services they need when a medical or special educational condition exists.
On Peterson, there are about 250 active duty special needs families enrolled in the Special Needs Identification and Coordination Program and about 80 from Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station. A special need can be medical needs, which require specialized care for ongoing chronic illness, or educational needs, which require special academic programs.
Along with medical and therapeutic programs, Ms. Wickham connects families to recreation programs, like the weekends at the Christ Haven Lodge. She is hoping to send as many as 40 families to the weekend retreats at the Christ Haven Lodge throughout the year.
Families who have a child with special needs can find it difficult to engage in recreational activities, Ms. Wickham said. The lodge staff and volunteers have games and activities designed especially for children with disabilities. Some activities include horseback riding and swimming. The weekend also includes breakout sessions for parents and some relaxation time.
It was nice to talk to other parents who understand special needs children, said Ms. Bleisch, whose husband is deployed. Her three-year-old son is diagnosed as high-functioning Autistic.
“Everybody had a different situation because every child had a different need, but yet, we all were connected,” Ms. Bleisch said. “It is a huge stress-reliever when you talk to other parents who know how you feel.”
l For more information about the Exceptional Family Member Program, call Jackie Wickham at 556-6141.