WANTAGE ? Father's Day is a time for celebrating and honoring the dads in our lives, but for the fathers of special-needs children, it is all too often a day when their sense of isolation is reinforced.
Carol Lee Spages, activities chairperson for Sussex Elks Lodge 2288, explained that as children with special needs grow older, they often find it harder to assimilate into groups of similarly aged peers.
As these children fit in less and are invited less frequently to father-and-son outings like ballgames, birthday parties and picnics, it is not only the children but their fathers, too, who suffer a loss of camaraderie and social connection with other dads.
For them, and for their entire families, the Sussex Elks will be hosting a Father's Day breakfast from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday followed by a free, fun-filled, nature-themed gathering in the afternoon from 2 to 4 p.m. The breakfast, consisting of eggs, bacon, sausage, French toast, home fries, toast, pastries, juice, coffee and tea, also is free for dads and is $5 for all other adults, with a reduced price for kids.
Families may attend either or both events.
The afternoon event will feature a baby animal presentation by Lori Day of Space Farms Zoo & Museum, as well as nature crafts, games, adventures, discoveries and, weather permitting, an outdoor scavenger hunt. Free snacks also will be provided.
"Children in general respond very well to baby animals because they're small and not intimidating," Day said. "I have done this many times and always bring baby animals that are safe for the children to get close to."
When given the opportunity to interact with animals, Day said, children with autism often find it easier to overcome their difficulties reaching out toward other people. She said she always chooses carefully which animals to take with her and mentioned emu chicks and a baby fox as among the animals she might bring this Sunday.
For the fathers who attend ? and for the moms, too ? there will be plenty of opportunity to socialize with the other adults while their children are enjoying supervised activities. Parents can either participate with their kids or relax with the grownups.
"The big thing," Spages said, "is that their children will be taken care of and have a fun time, and their parents will have an opportunity to chill out for a couple of hours in our coffee lounge with the other adults and not have to worry about their kids."
This Sunday's event is one of a series of theme-based activities the Sussex Elks are hosting on the third Sunday of each month throughout the summer for families with special-needs children. July's theme will be food and fun, and in August, there will be a fiesta theme with a pinata.
"The program is called ‘G.R.E.A.T. Place,' as in the Elks have a great place to come and have fun," Spages said.
"G.R.E.A.T." is an acronym for "Gathering Room... Everyone All Together," and in this case, "everyone" means the whole family.
"Families are being invited because often when children with special needs are invited to events like this, their siblings are not, and then they feel left out too," Spages said.
The program was made possible by a $2,000 grant that the Elks lodge applied for and received earlier this year from the national Elks headquarters, known as the Grand Lodge.
To ensure the program's success, the Elks have been working with a team of professionals from Special Child Health Services, in Hardyston; and the Family Support Organization of Sussex and Morris counties, in Newton. The Elks lodge also has been working with SCARC, in Augusta, which provides services for both children and adults with special needs.
Spages said if the program is successful, the Elks might seek additional funding to continue it in the fall.