Fair helps parents navigate disability issues

Respite and Resource Fair connects families with providers

March 15, 2011|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

Hilary Zarenejad, a parent of two toddlers with special needs and a coordinator in Baltimore County's Infant and Toddlers Program, made several connections with service agencies and located information that she can use at home and on the job at a Respite and Resource Fair Tuesday.

Baltimore County Public Schools sponsored the fair that drew about 15 government agencies and nonprofit groups to Battle Monument School in Dundalk.

"It is amazing the resources available right here in Maryland and many of them are free," Zarenejad said, while clutching a hefty packet of brochures and applications. "At this event, parents can find what is out there, where it is and how to get it."

Many in attendance were parents of students at the school for about 75 children with special needs who range in age from 3 to 21 years old.

"Every one of these resources is helpful to parents," said Denise Svezzese, a single mother of two autistic teens who attend the school.

She was particularly interested in after-school and summer recreation programs and transition to employment programs, she said. She found information on summer camps, adaptive equipment, job training, even directions to where she might apply for financial assistance.

"The idea is to reach out to as many parents as we can from across the county and the city," said Hilary R. Hellerbach, a social worker at Battle Monument School. "There are a lot of good resources out there that parents don't know about. These events help set up a network between parents and service agencies."

Parents, especially those new to a child's diagnosis of autism or developmental disability, can be overwhelmed by the paperwork, the numerous agencies, even a child's individual education plan, Zarenejad said.

"Autism was not on my radar and it was a whole new world to me," she said. "I feel much more educated now, and events like this help."

Parents who have been through the experience offered their own perspective.

"We have been through all this with our own kids," said Linda Pearl, a family navigator with Catholic Charities. "What we don't know, we will research for you and find you the resources."

Vanessa Finney of Essex expects to adopt her 12-year-old nephew, who has numerous mental and physical problems related to cerebral palsy. She talked to nearly every provider and accumulated a stack of business cards and brochures.

"I want every service I can find to help him," she said. "I have a pile of stuff from the fair and I will read it all. Without something like this, I might be lost."

Hellerbach expected several dozen parents would visit the two-hour event. "Even if only a few parents find something to help, this fair was worth it," she said.

mary.gail.hare@baltsun.com

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