AngelCare Parent's Night Out has found its wings and taken flight in a program sponsored by Cornelius PARC and Huntersville Parks and Recreation Department.
AngelCare offers a free night of babysitting up to three hours once a month to special-needs children and their siblings.
With the help of Cornelius PARC Special Needs Programs Coordinator Trina Roeder and the dedication of W.A. Hough High School junior Emily Bales in just a few short months the program has seen tremendous growth and response.
The first event in November had eight attendees, Bales said. For January, 22 children were scheduled to attend. Each child has his or her own volunteer for one-on-one attention.
Bales, 17, of Birkdale Village in Huntersville, started her journey working with children by babysitting and volunteering at the Little Gym in Huntersville. Bales met Roeder through volunteering and working summer camps and felt she wanted to continue to do something to make a difference.
She wanted to make a place where children can go and be safe and have fun and where the volunteers have experience with children, Bales said.
She is adamant about the program remaining free. With the added pressure some parents of special-needs children face such as doctor visits and therapy sessions, Bales wants this program to be a respite for them, she said.
It is her dream to go to UNC Chapel Hill, her parents' alma mater, to study pediatric occupational therapy, Bales said.
Bales hopes the program will continue to grow after she goes off to college. She encourages people with babysitting experience, especially for special-needs children, to volunteer.
Roeder has three children; her oldest Trevor, 8, is autistic. She started using some of the Cornelius PARC programs with him and eventually took a part-time position to help run local programs.
According to the program's mission, the "special-needs programs are designed to give each individual an opportunity to socialize, create self-expression, increase self-esteem, learn a variety of skills, and practice these skills with peers, volunteers, and staff.
"Participants are partnered with volunteers while staff teach or coach the activity. Our goal is to meet each participant's specific needs and create a positive experience for them. We strive to celebrate coming together as a team, building challenges without frustration."
Roeder said the families are appreciative, thankful and some offer donations, she said.
Each month, the babysitting night is based on a different theme. The theme for January was Pajama Party, and the children watched movies and ate popcorn. There is another room open for children who want to be more active and play.
Each theme gives the children something to focus on, she said. Past themes included Winter Wonderland and Thankfulness.
Roeder said volunteers are always needed. "Volunteers are an integral and valued part of our special-needs programming. We are always looking for enthusiastic and dedicated individuals to participate," she said.