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The Watson Institute's CareBreak Volunteer Program: A Way to Care and Connect

Generous, caring adults of all ages who want to enrich their lives with a truly meaningful volunteer experience need look no further than CareBreak, The Watson Institute's innovative and highly honored respite program for families with children who have developmental and neurological disabilities.

CareBreak, which is offered at no charge to families, matches thoroughly screened and well-trained volunteers with families caring for a child up to the age of 16 who has been diagnosed with autism, cerebral palsy or other developmental disorders, in order to provide respite for the family and an opportunity for socialization and fun for the child. CareBreak volunteers commit to spend two to four hours a week visiting with "their" child, playing games, reading, going out and simply enjoying each other's company. "CareBreak is relationship-based," explains MaryJo Alimena Caruso, M.Ed., Program Coordinator. "That makes it an exceptional volunteer experience. This is not a one-shot volunteer job; you aren't simply spending a day performing a task for a non-profit; you are developing a personal connection with a child and family."

CareBreak volunteers are asked to make a six month commitment, although Caruso says that the average length of service is three to five years. A meticulous screening process includes a personal interview and background check. Factors such as preferences, geographic location, interests and availability are considered.

Alimena Caruso meets with every family that registers for CareBreak services, assessing the child's interests and needs balanced with family preferences in order to make the best possible match. "It's a respectful process," she says. "We recognize that the family knows the child best. These are empowered parents who self-refer to CareBreak and determine their own needs. Asking for respite care is a sign of strength, not weakness."

Respite care is consistently identified by families of special-needs children as their number-one unmet need, says Alimena Caruso. "We held focus groups with families and it was clear that families need a break, a chance to catch their breath. The care of a child with special needs can be exhausting. But we also learned that the kids had limited adult relationships. Other than their parents and paid caregivers, who often come and go in a revolving door of turnover, they have few opportunities to interact with adults. A caring adult presence and consistent contact, freely given, has a powerful impact for the child."

In a city that is known for its exceptional number of nonprofits and a rate of volunteerism that exceeds the national average, CareBreak is a jewel. Established at Watson in 1998, it is one of the most highly honored volunteer programs in the region and is viewed as a national prototype for respite care. The program has been cited for excellence by the Greater Pittsburgh Mentoring Partnership, National Association of Women Business Owners and the national Jefferson Awards. Recently, CareBreak was named the most innovative respite program in the U.S. by the ARCH National Respite Center.

CareBreak volunteers currently range in age from 18 to 67. One might expect that they would have backgrounds in health or child care, but the opposite is true. "Our volunteers are more likely to be people with no professional background in health or human services," says Alimena Caruso. "They are bankers, students, attorneys or teachers and are extremely busy people, but they make time to volunteer."

Erin Bates became a CareBreak volunteer in 2010. "I love it!" she exclaims. "I was matched with siblings, Lee, age 4, and Sara, age 6, who both have autism. I was well prepared by MaryJo and I am totally comfortable with my role. We have a lot of fun; I think I get more out of it than anybody. When I moved to Pittsburgh with my family, I was looking for a way to get involved in my new community, and fortunately I learned about CareBreak. There is nothing like CareBreak; it's a wonderful program."

To families and the professionals who work with them, respite care is an essential service that actually helps keep families intact and well functioning. However, because it is not yet recognized by third party payors as an essential and reimbursable service, there are not nearly enough providers. One of the goals at Watson is to make respite care available to more families, and expanding the volunteer team is one way to achieve that.

"The demand for respite care is growing," says Caruso, "and Watson has made a commitment to provide this. The CareBreak model has been replicated in other states and we're eager to help organizations that want to develop a program."

Caruso says that the benefits of respite care transcend the "breather" from constant caregiving for stressed parents. "Everybody wins. Parents experience reduced stress levels and improvement in the health problems that accompany stress; they get to see someone else enjoying their child. The kids enjoy attention from an adult who is there purely for the purpose of having fun with them. The volunteer experiences the joy of giving and interacting with the child."

If you are interested in becoming a volunteer with the CareBreak program, contact MaryJo Alimena Caruso, CareBreak coordinator at (412) 749-2863 or maryjoa@thewatsoninstitute.org. For more information about CareBreak or the Watson Institute, visit www.thewatsoninstitute.org.

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