Academics and Research / Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Denver parents seek respite through unique DU childcare program

When parents of special-needs children want a night out, finding childcare can be an expensive and frustrating endeavor. The Night Owls program at DU’s Fisher Early Learning Center gives families a night out every month — and it’s free.

Night Owls Coordinator Amy Mohraz suggested the program last year, when she was a student at DU’sMorgridge College of Education.

“I anticipate it being a permanent program that Fisher holds. It fills the needs of volunteers and families with special needs,” Mohraz says.

Those needs run the gamut, including cognitive, emotional, behavioral and physical challenges.

Four events have been held since April, allowing 102 children from 52 families to enjoy their own special night in Fisher’s kid-friendly facilities while their caretakers get a much-needed break. Special-needs children — from infants to 12-year-olds  — and their siblings are eligible to participate.

The first Friday event features trained volunteers matched one-on-one with children. Some 114 community members have signed up to be volunteers, including 20 DU students. Volunteers accompany children to various activities throughout the four-hour event, including art, music, gymnastics and a movie.

Marcee Martin, Fisher’s executive director, says volunteers range in age from 20s to 70s. The all-volunteer program costs about $9,600 per year, and is dependent upon donations. Costs include stipends for nurses and fees associated with background checks and fingerprinting for new volunteers.

“It’s many faceted, and we’re pleased that it’s here filling a need,” Martin says.

Chuck and Suzie Reinhardt dropped off their grandson Jack, 4, who has autism, at the Night Owls event in April; it was the first time they’d had a chance to go out alone in four months.

Because neither home nor school is equipped to let him go and do as he pleases, it’s the only place in the world Jack may safely do whatever he wants, the Reinhardts say. The couple has taken him to Night Owls several times. While he’s happily played, they’ve enjoyed dinner, a movie and a night out with their 14 year-old granddaughter.

“He can’t wait to get there. He loves being able to go outside to the playground and he loves the service dogs. Last time he played in the mud,” Suzie says.

The next Night Owls event will be on Aug. 1. Visit the Night Owls Volunteer Page for details about volunteering.

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