Children who have disabilities have a friend in Families Together Inc.
One poster at the Families Together Parent Center in Topeka reads "Don't think that we don't think," and the staff of Families Together stand by those words in their quest to ensure that the children and their families have a fair shot at life.
``People with disabilities have rights, rights to lead a typical life,'' said Patty Gerdel, Families Together executive director.
Families Together, a statewide program, has served parents of children with varying disabilities: developmental, physical and/or emotional, Mrs. Gerdel said.
The families participate in Family Enrichment weekends or days and parent workshops and use a large resource collection available at the parent center in Topeka.
THE WORKSHOPS and weekends provide training and understanding for parents about their children's rights, integrating them in schools and helping them make transitions through the different stages of life, Mrs. Gerdel said.
Among the supporters of this statewide service is the United Way of Douglas County. This year, Families Together is expected to receive about $4,360 from the current United Way drive in Douglas County.
Another major source of revenue is a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education, which was renewed this September for three more years, Mrs. Gerdel said. Other sources of revenue are private donations, bingo games conducted in Topeka and gifts from civic groups such as the Knights of Columbus.
LAUGHTER FILTERS throughout the Lawrence Holidome where children and their companions decorate cookies, swim, watch a mystifying magician and braid friendship bracelets. There is no prejudice or cruel name-calling here. It is a weekend of fun and newly forged friendships.
At these enrichment weekends and days, volunteers, called companions, entertain and take care of the children and their siblings. In the past, companions have been teachers, family members, professionals and students. Kansas University students majoring in education can obtain credit for working as companions at the gatherings, Mrs. Gerdel said.
The children are split into appropriate age groups, and companions are assigned to children according to disability experience. While these children are busy with activities, parents are busy learning and getting to know each other, Mrs. Gerdel said.
LESLI GIRARD, administrative assistant and parent trainer, said, ``The best support for parents is the comfort of other parents.''
In 1982, the first Enrichment Weekend was held in Lawrence at the Lawrence Holidome. It happened under the direction of Chris Curry, former Lawrence resident and founder of Families Together Inc.
Teresa Martell was one of the parents who attended the first Enrichment Weekend held by Mrs. Curry. She said she went into it knowing what to expect, but left with unfaltering confidence in the program.
``I came away with a high. Had I wanted to go to sleep, I couldn't have,'' Mrs. Martell said. ``People who haven't gone don't know what they're missing.'' Mrs. Martell is now on the board of directors and is chairman of the Lawrence steering committee for Families Together.
Mrs. Girard said that people don't think about what it would be like to have a disabled child, but now that she works with these children, she no longer sees their disabilities. She stressed that these workshops can erase the fears and myths that people have about disabled children.
``It's amazing how hard parents have to work for their children, advocating for them because they have a disability, when I think that all opportunities should be there for them,'' Mrs. Girard said.