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Parents find hope, relief at special needs day care

Parents find hope, relief at special needs day care

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Parents find hope, relief at special needs day care

Oct. 12, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0751}

An e-Review Feature
By Jenna De Marco**

Finding the right day care presents a challenge to any parent, but finding a day care dedicated to children with special needs is nearly impossible.

Since 1989, United Methodists in north Florida have been helping care for children with medical conditions or disabilities through the Developmental Learning Center Nurse and Learn in Jacksonville, a ministry of the Florida Conference’s North East District. Photo courtesy of the Developmental Learning Center Nurse and Learn. Photo #07-0685. Web photo only.

Melvinia Thomas was lucky. She found the Developmental Learning Center (DLC) Nurse and Learn in Jacksonville. It’s a ministry of the Florida Conference’s North East District.

Thomas’ 2 ½-year-old adopted son Zachary is a student there. Zachary was born more than three and a half months prematurely and weighed less than 2 pounds. Since his birth, he has faced multiple surgeries and challenges, including blindness, according to Thomas. When she adopted him in February 2007, she said his motor skills and speech were delayed.
“If you would have met him when he first started at (the) day care until now, it’s a great change,” Thomas said.
Although Zachary can see some “shadows” in his right eye, it is unlikely he will ever be able to see well, Thomas said. The physical, occupational and speech therapy he receives at the DLC, however, is giving him the confidence to begin talking and walking, she said.
“It’s an awesome thing that (they’re) doing, and a lot of people really don’t know that they are there,” Thomas said.
Zachary’s future will hopefully include surgery to attach a prosthetic left eye and more therapy to help him develop, Thomas said.

The center’s director, Amy Buggle, is a special education teacher. She envisioned the idea and presented it to Murray Hill United Methodist Church leadership 18 years ago last month. She opened the doors of the ministry at the church with two students.  

Any child with a disability or medical condition that prevents him or her from attending day care or preschool elsewhere is eligible for the center’s services, Buggle said.

The center also serves older youth. While children 6 and under can attend the full-day preschool program, students up to 22 years old can attend before- and after-school programs that provide educational activities, therapy and medical care.

While the DLC remains located next to Murray Hill United Methodist Church, it stands on its own as a district-wide ministry. Buggle said the center has served more than 910 students since it opened.

Zachary’s situation is representative of other special needs children in the program. They face a wide range of challenges, such as Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, swallowing problems or seizures.
The center’s educational program includes working on cognitive and thinking activities, speech and language skills, gross motor abilities, and self-help skills, according to the program’s Web site.

Miss Yalitza, a staff person at the Developmental Learning Center Nurse and Learn in Jacksonville works with Rose, a student at the center. Photo by Amy Buggle. Photo #07-0686.

“One of the amazing things is that we will have a child who starts school, and within one week the parent will come in and say, ‘I cannot believe the change in my child,’ (with the) therapies and the stimulation and the other children to play with,” Buggle said.
The vision to start the DLC came to Buggle after teaching special education for four years in Duval County public schools. She noticed day care and preschool opportunities for children with special needs were almost non-existent.
“Nobody was willing to accept a child with disabilities or a child with medical problems,” Buggle said. “It gave me the thought that we (as a church) ought to do something about it.”
Following the trend in public schools toward inclusive classrooms where all students learn together, the program began serving children without disabilities about three years ago, Buggle said. The DLC has a waiting list for both groups of children.
“All of the preschool classes have typically-developing children (along) with special needs kids in the classroom — we take kids of all abilities,” Buggle said. “ … Our longest waiting list is for the typically-developing kids. It’s an excellent program and the ratios are low and parents like their kids being with kids who are different (from them).”
Natalie Broussard’s 18-month-old son, Nash, is in the program. Her oldest son, Noah, 7, also attended.
“I wanted to be able to support an inclusion program like that, where they were integrating special needs students with typically-developing kids,” Broussard said.
Broussard, who is a special needs teacher in Duval County public schools, praised the staff’s professionalism and training, as well as the types of things her children have learned.
“It’s not anything (difficult) for (Nash) to be around one of the children who is on a feeding tube or having a breathing treatment,” Broussard said.
“Our goal is to just reach out to the families and bring them into the church and help them get through this (difficult) time in their lives,” Buggle said. “We’re really here for the families … we are here to support them and give them a break.”
The center’s staff includes teachers, assistants, nurses and physical, occupational and speech therapists. With the addition of a satellite school, named DLC Therapy and Care, at Lakeshore Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, the program serves 90 children each semester. The cost to each family depends on the family’s financial situation and ability to pay, Buggle said. Many families need financial assistance because they have had difficulty maintaining employment due to the time required to care for their special needs children.

“So many of the families have been out of work for so long,” Buggle said.

The expenses to run the program, however, far outpace its income, Buggle said. With 70 to 75 of the participating children receiving some form of tuition assistance, the DLC relies on fundraisers, grants and donations, and it needs more financial assistance.

“Financial needs are the biggest challenge,” Buggle said.

Support for the center’s operating budget, which is $750,000 to $800,000 annually, comes from the United Methodist Men of the North East District, NFL Jacksonville Jaguars Foundation, United Way of Northeast Florida, Jacksonville Children’s Commission and private donations.

Despite the financial challenges, Buggle believes she is following God’s call on her life.

“I know this is what God wants me to do,” she said. “I truly feel that this is what God intends for my life to be about.”

Buggle says the center’s 30 staff members are just as dedicated. “The people who are here love the kids,” she said.

Buggle wants to grow the ministry some day. Other churches have offered space to help the DLC expand, but financial challenges are a consideration, she said.

The Rev. Nate Boles, pastor at Murray Hill United Methodist Church, hopes the ministry inspires other churches across the Florida Conference to consider helping special needs children.

“I think there could be a DLC or something like it in every district … .” Boles said. “I know pastors have all kinds of things competing for their attention, but we feel like this is a ministry that’s meeting a great need and gives God’s people an opportunity to really demonstrate the love of Christ.”

More information about the DLC is available on its Web site at or by calling 904-387-0730.


This article relates to Outreach.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a freelance writer based in Viera, Fla.