WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Jan. 14, 2015) -- Parents of special-needs children often carry a heavy burden and need someone to confide in, said a family life chaplain.

A group of about 25 parents and caretakers meet monthly at the Pentagon to share their feelings, experiences and resources, said Army Chaplain Maj. Don Ehrke, who leads the group, along with Andre Peri, a psychologist.

The group has children of all ages with needs ranging from behavioral and developmental to intellectual and physical. It could be anything from Down syndrome and autism to Asperger syndrome, Ehrke said.

It's a "mutual support system," he explained. They come here and realize they are not the only ones facing these issues.

"They realize 'these are people just like me who have the same problems, same concerns, same worries, same challenges,' and they have this community of people they can rely on for information on what's working for them and what's not working," Ehrke said.

Some people are relatively new to the group and to the experience of raising a special-needs child, he said. "They're just finding out, just beginning to realize they have a challenge. They say, 'I don't know where to go. I don't know how to start.' I believe they found some help here."

Others have been raising a special-needs child for some time and got used to the facilities and support network where they were stationed. Then they got orders to move and don't really know what's available in terms of schools and other things in the area, Ehrke said.

Trust funds came up in the latest discussion, he said. "How do you plan for your child if you're not going to be here? Who would care for your child if you aren't around," he said, meaning if the parent or caregiver died or became disabled.

Another issue that came up was behavioral in nature.

A woman mentioned how the lighting affects her autistic child, Ehrke said. For instance, going into a restaurant, a light was shining in her child's eyes, so the child had a hat pulled over his head. The child was trying to hide from the public limelight, so to speak.

The problem was, he said, the restaurant had a no-hats policy and the waitress made a scene about the child needing to remove his hat. "Parents live with these kinds of things daily," Ehrke said.

When situations occur over and over again, the "parents can become so burned out constantly worrying about all the little things that affect their kids' lives, that they don't have a chance to care for themselves," he said.

As to his role in the group, Ehrke said, it's mainly being a good listener.

"People who can lead it are those who are really good at listening. Not just hearing what people say, but letting them talk," he explained.

"Although I may have something to say, they learn best from each other because they have insights I never knew existed because they're walking the walk. They feed off each other's comments," he continued.

The Pentagon's program is about three years old. It is funded by the Army Chief of Chaplains Office. Lunch is provided, he said, so participants don't have to choose between lunch and coming.

Ehrke said he is not sure if installations across the Army have similar groups. A possible place to start might be the installation family life chaplain, said an official from the Army's Ready and Resilient program office. If a group is not formed, perhaps the suggestion could be made to start one, the official added.

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