Sitters Fill Families' Special Needs

Times Staff Writer

The flu was sapping her energy, but Kathy Dohner was blissful.

A sitter watched her children three afternoons last week, allowing her -- guilt-free -- to see a doctor and rest in bed, something she never would have thought possible a few years ago.

Her eldest, 6-year-old Derek, has neurological and behavior problems so severe that she doesn't take him even on quick grocery store outings. Add strong-willed Nicole, 3, and infant Jenna, and Dohner figured her San Clemente home was too daunting for even the most patient of caregivers.

Then she heard about Special Sitters, a partnership of the Orange County chapters of Camp Fire USA and United Cerebral Palsy Assn., which trains teens to care for disabled children.

At first, Dohner was skeptical that a sitter could cope with her son.

But her confidence grew as Marissa Murphy, now 20, began caring for her children. For the first time in years, Dohner found herself able to run errands, go to the gym, even take an afternoon to read.

"Marissa is my lifeline to sanity," Dohner said.

Murphy, who has been with the Dohners for two years, is one of about 70 Special Sitters in Orange County, one of a handful of areas in the nation that offer the aid. Nearly 150 county families have registered with the program, which charges $15 to match a teen with a household and then negotiates rates with the sitter. Parents must contact United Cerebral Palsy to determine whether their children are eligible.

Aspiring Special Sitters must be 13 or older and take a 16-hour course that includes first-aid training and lessons on communicating.

"Every child has such a unique situation that we have to teach active listening rather than get into the specifics of each disability," program coordinator Marilyn Bauer said.

As Murphy played with the rambunctious Derek on Friday, switching from play-acting circus roles to being on a train to jousting in a medieval tournament in barely an hour, it was evident that being a Special Sitter isn't a routine baby-sitting job. There's no talking on the phone while children play in the next room -- her only chance to sit down was when Derek ran upstairs to grab his knight costume.

The experience has made Murphy eager to work with disabled children. She is a full-time Saddleback College student studying to be a therapist and an instructional assistant at an elementary school.

"It takes a lot of time, but it's so much more worth it to see them blossom," she said.

Murphy spends about 15 hours each week between the Dohners and another child, Kelsey Wise, in San Juan Capistrano. With Murphy, 10-year-old Kelsey, who has cerebral palsy, plays with dolls and her Easy-Bake Oven and has had her first slumber party.

Although Kelsey's mother, Tane Wise, stays home while Murphy is there because of her daughter's frequent medication requirements, Wise said those times are a rare chance for her to relax.

"That five hours may not seem like much to other parents," Wise said. "But when you're the parent of a disabled child, the one thing you never have is a break."

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