Thursday, for Jennifer Choi, is the day of rest, a much-anticipated Sabbath that comes and goes all too soon.
On Thursdays, Ms. Choi can feel reliably confident that her husband will not come home to find her tense and exhausted. By bedtime, both of her children will have eaten dinner and been bathed. The 3-year-old, Spencer, who has a speech delay and a developmental disorder, will not have walked around the living room in self-soothing circles the moment she turned her attention elsewhere. Her 6-year-old, Logan, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, will have finished his homework.
Thursday is the best day because that is the day Catalina Lopez — cheerful, well trained and all of 17 years old — comes to watch Spencer and Logan, each for an hour, separately, and peace descends on the family’s two-bedroom apartment in western Queens. Competent, reliable baby sitters are closely guarded treasures for most parents; for families who have children with special needs (but who do not qualify for state-supported respite care), such baby sitters may exist only in the realm of fantasy. Those who need a break the most, then, are often the least able to find someone they trust to provide it.
Several such parents expressed that sentiment several years back to Joy Levitt, the executive director of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. And so, since 2004, the center has been offering, occasionally, a six-week training class for young people interested in caring for children with autism or other developmental disorders. Catalina is one of 34 graduates of the class.
At the outset, Ms. Choi did not give too much detail, beyond the boys’ diagnoses, to Catalina, whom she met a year ago in the elevator of the seven-story building where they both live. “You don’t want to scare them away,” said Ms. Choi, 39, who is home with her children full time.
Once she started, Catalina was, at times, bewildered — like when Spencer started jumping, over and over, on the toy kitchen set up in his parents’ bedroom. “I didn’t know what to do,” said Catalina, who earns $8 an hour. “I felt closed off.”
After one harrowing afternoon at an ice-skating rink, when Spencer kept running away from Catalina as his mother tried to oversee Logan’s birthday party, Ms. Choi fully expected Catalina to quit; other sitters before her had not worked out. “I saw on her face that she was exhausted,” Ms. Choi said. “She looked overwhelmed and confused.”
A few days later, Ms. Choi hugged Catalina and told her it was all right, she understood if she wanted to stop coming.
“I told her, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to quit — I’m just going to try harder,’ ” Catalina recalled.
Sometimes, without training, all the trying in the world will not be enough, which is why both jumped at the opportunity for Catalina to take the Jewish Community Center class last spring (Ms. Choi paid the $36 fee). Catalina roped in two friends, and on their hourlong commute back to Queens, after the two-hour class, they all talked about what they had learned. Catalina finally understood why, when Spencer behaved wildly, his mother hugged her son to calm him down, rather than disciplining him. She learned to use the simplest possible language, or pictures, to plan out the day’s events. She began to address Spencer and Logan at eye level, on her knees. She grew confident redirecting the boys’ energy when they felt out of control.
“Now I actually like Catalina to be in the park with Spencer even more than my own husband, I’m sorry to say, or me,” Ms. Choi said. “Both of us are so tired. Catalina has so much energy. And she understands what to do.”
The challenges of raising children in New York are myriad. But the opportunity in the universe that is a New York apartment building surely offsets those hazards: from a chance encounter with a young woman in an elevator, Ms. Choi found a lifeline for her children, and a young high school student found a calling. Having seen Spencer progress, Catalina now intends to pursue a career in speech pathology.
With Catalina, Ms. Choi said, Spencer takes more risks, like going on a swing, which he had long feared. Gently pushing that tentative, hopeful child for the first time, Catalina said, was one of the proudest moments of her life. “I felt like I actually took a fear away from this kid,” she said. “And maybe he’ll think, if I can go on a swing, I could become the president. They don’t have to see what they have as an obstacle. I thought, O.K., I really did a good job, here.”
Ms. Choi no longer worries that Catalina will quit.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
The NY Times:
Posted by BA Haller at 8:12 AM