PLEASANTON -- Three hours of alone time can mean more to Pauline Linnell than a week at a luxury resort.
"It's so great to have three hours to yourself, catch up with your husband, have a cup of tea and just do nothing," Linnell recalled wistfully of a recent fall weekend when she got some rare alone time.
Linnell is among countless parents who work tirelessly day in and day out to care for their special-needs children. Linnell's 6-year-old daughter, Stella, has autism.
"My daughter requires a lot of attention because she has special needs," Linnell said of her only child. "She doesn't have any play dates or friends. She's always with us. We have to entertain her 24/7. She has a hard time being by herself and finding things to do. Autistic kids have a hard time finding an interest or they get obsessed."
That's why Linnell was thrilled when she heard about a new respite program offered by Valley Community Church in Pleasanton. Every other month, the church's disability ministry offers free one-on-one child care so that parents can get three precious hours to themselves.
"That time is priceless," said Shelly Welsh, the church's disability ministry coordinator. "It's just a great time. It's a lot of fun. It's fabulous to see these families come from the community. They get there and say, 'Really, you're going to take care of my child for three hours, and I can do anything I want?' I had a mom who broke down in tears."
The respite program is intensely personal for Welsh because she, too, has a special-needs child. Her 12-year-old daughter, Kira, is developmentally disabled. The Livermore family also has an 8-year-old son, Caleb. Welsh, a devout churchgoer, was discouraged that more families with special-needs children don't attend church.
"I was talking to too many families who weren't coming to church," she recalled. "They were talking about how hard it is. They'd say, 'I can't remember the last time my husband and I got out or even had a conversation.' "
Valley Community has offered special-needs Sunday school for about nine years, but not many people know about the program, Welsh noted. She worked with church leadership to establish the disability ministry in February to help spread the word.
"You need to build it, and they will come," Welsh said. "People weren't being made aware that there is this population (of special-needs kids). I came along, and, because I'm very vocal, I brought a voice to it."
Welsh was not content with expanding the special-needs Sunday school. She wanted to reach beyond the church doors to serve the entire community. She proposed a respite program to offer three hours of care for children and break time for parents.
"We got everybody on board that this is a great thing and we need to do this," Welsh said. "We jumped in with both feet. We had our first respite event in May. It was very successful. We had lots of families respond and lots of people in the congregation wanting to help."
The respite events are offered every other month on a Saturday. Everyone is welcome, regardless of where they live. Siblings of special-needs children are also welcome to attend. All that's required is a reservation at least one week before the respite event.
"The majority of our respite families do not attend our church," Welsh said. "In fact, that event is not a religious event. It is community outreach run by our church."
Respite care is open to children in kindergarten through eighth grade. Volunteer caregivers are typically church members or students who need community service hours. Every special-needs child is paired with one adult and usually one teen, giving the program a two-to-one ratio.
"They're given 100 percent attention for three hours," Welsh said of the special-needs kids. "It's their agenda. That is really fun for them. Not only is it a blessing for that child and their parents, but the volunteers walk away saying, 'That's the most fun I've had in a long time.' "
Linnell and her husband used the respite program for the first time in October. The couple dropped off Stella and retreated to their Pleasanton home to relax and take a nap.
"We didn't feel like doing anything special or fancy," Linnell recalled. "We just wanted to catch our breath and enjoy ourselves for a few hours. It's fantastic because I really feel confident that my kid is in good hands there. Peace of mind is hard to find when you have a special-needs child. It's hard to find a respite provider you trust and one who's confident handling special-needs kids."
Volunteers are screened for security reasons and given direction about how to work with special-needs kids, Welsh said. There's always someone at respite with medical and CPR training, just to be safe. Church member Stephen Marshall, of Pleasanton, volunteers at respite events as a way to give back to the community.
"For me, it's a blessing," Marshall said. "It's a great afternoon spent not only with my friends at church, but with the little kids. This is definitely something that I feel I've been called to help in. It's really awesome to be able to be part of a church community that wants to serve.
"It's such a joy to have these kids and to play with them," he continued. "What was really fun was to let myself loose and play with my little buddy. I felt like a kid again. I haven't had that much fun in a while."
Valley Community's respite program may be the only one of its kind in the East Bay, Welsh noted. Some families have private respite care, but it can be a challenge to find the right caregiver. The free drop-in program provides a much-needed option for families.
"I'm very grateful that they're doing this," Linnell said. "I think (the respite program) will be more and more popular as special-needs parents start to talk and say, 'Hey, those guys are great.' "
Valley Community Church, 4455 Del Valle Parkway in Pleasanton. Respite care events are held every other month from September through May The next events are March 15 and May 10 from 1 to 4 p.m. An RSVP is required at least one week in advance. Visit vcclive.org/ministries/disability-ministry for RSVP info and registration forms.