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Caring for Kids with Special Needs & Week in Review

Dear Debi,
How do I care for children with special needs?
Debi's Tips
Debi Gutierrez
Debi Gutierrez
Todayís activity is a ďMystery BoxĒ Ė a type of prediction game that you can create with simple items that you have at home. By playing this game children learn problem-solving skills and develop their use of language.

Click to our activity page for instructions on how to set up a "Mystery Box" for the children in you care.

Donít forget about the great things that we learned this week:
Expert Advice
Ann Belles
Ann Belles
Mother and child care provider for 32 special needs young men
Ann Belles has been featured in People magazine and on television programs like Good Morning America and 60 Minutes II because sheís the mother of 32 sons. Anne has adopted thirty boys and she visited with us to share how she gets through her day.

How did you get started caring for kids with disabilities?
I always knew that I wanted to adopt kids. In high school, I was an instructional aide for kids with disabilities and I continued to work with them while I was in college. When I was 19, a friend and I decided to buy a condo and rent out a room. We discovered that a 17-year-old we knew who was retarded was being abused at home. So we took her in and another girl. Later, my friend got married and moved out, so it was just myself and the two girls. We also had two homes by then and had taken in 10 by then. As the girls got older, they were transitioned into adult homes. I bought the home Iím in now in 1989 Ė the same year I took in my first boy.

What are the dynamics of your home?
24 kids are living with me right now, myself and my husband, 4 dogs, and a salt water aquarium. The 22 boys that live with us now range in age from 3 to 17.

How long have you been caring for kids with special needs?
Iíve taken care of kids in my home since I was 19, in 1982, so over 22 years.

How many children with special needs have you cared for over the past 22 years?
I've cared for 31 kids in addition to the 32 I've adopted, so about 63 all together. Some of the kids I take care of have terminal illnesses. I lost one child in September of 2004.

What are their disabilities?
They all have disabilities, ranging from mild learning disabilities (such as Touretteís Syndrom or speech and language issues) to quadriplegia, profound retardation, renal failure, and muscular dystrophy. Jordan, Dylan, Sean, and Kevin have all been on this show.

What made you decide to take in primarily boys?
Well, the joke was that if I had seen Annie first, I may have taken in all girls. I watched Oliver when I was 6 years old and I knew from then on that I wanted to adopt boys. It seems the majority of underserved children are male, non-Caucasian with special needs. We also find that without girls, the boys learn skills that may have gone to the girls, if they were here. It gives them the freedom to explore these skills, in addition to sports.

How did you find them?
They call me now, but before I used to go to the state hospital and take kids out for walks. The first six boys came from a nursing home. They were all kids with disabilities that the parents couldnít cope with, so they were placed with me. I took them out and gave them a life.

Who has been with you the longest and where is he now?
Robert has been with me since he was 7 and he is now 23. He had a near-drowning experience. His disability looks like Cerebral Palsy and severe brain injury. I found him in a nursing home in a crib with no toys. They didnít understand why I wanted him because of the brain damage. He is now engaged to be married, and he is doing well.

How many boys will be enough?
I almost feel like I canít stop. So many kids end up in foster care because they are not Caucasian healthy kids. I take kids in that other people donít choose. I just got a 12 year old boy with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome this week. Iím getting an 8 year old before Christmas who has been living on the street in Russia.

How do you balance it all and still keep your sanity?
Itís a lifestyle. Iíve been doing it since I was 19, so I donít know anything different. This is my passion Ė I get fulfillment from helping them. We go to bed at 11:30 pm and are up at 4:30 am, so we donít have any down time. I go to meetings with social workers, at the schools, go to doctors, go to Grandmaís, etc.

How do you make it work financially?
As a family with adopted kids, we tap into various resources. We donít have the best clothes and material things. I think a lot of people who put all their eggs into the basket of ďcure.Ē It can be really heartbreaking when it doesnít happen. You can end up spending a lot of money trying to get this degree of range, while swimming is a lot cheaper and itís more fun than physical therapy. There is also adoptive assistance, so I get some monthly funding to help with their disabilities. I have them in karate, dance, they work for the Screen Actorís Guild. They are kids who were told they wouldnít walk who are now doing karate. We let them tap into their natural talents and meet their potential.

What do you think is the most important thing to keep in mind when caring for kids with special needs?
As with any kid, I think that you have to remember that they are kids. These kids deserve to get out there and experience life. Many people are afraid when a child with Cerebral Palsy falls and skins his knees, but I see it as dignity of the risk. You allow them to take risks and to learn from their successes and failures.

I have a triplegic who can only use one hand, not the other one or either of his legs. He wanted to be in the band. I told him to go to the teacher and tell her he wanted to play something. They found the baritone horn that he could use. If I had put the limitation on him that there are no instruments, he never would have found this opportunity. These kids deserve the same opportunities to succeed as well as fail, and there is a dignity in that. We should protect them the same as we would children without disabilities.

Mystery Box Featured Activity:
Mystery Box
Topic: Special Needs
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Ann Belles's website - All our Boys
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Adoption Network Law Center
Mr. Rogers on Likenesses and Differences
North American Council on Adoptable Children
California Association of Adoption Children
National Foster Parent Association
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Tips on Providing an Environment that Supports All Children pdf
Tips on How to Make Every Child Feel Valued pdf
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