As a mom to two special-needs children, Donna Aldridge is the first to admit that she needs help.
Though she has hired two people who help take care of Ryan, 4, and Julie, nearly 2, she credits a local preschool with being her saving grace.
"Challenged Child has given me my life back," Aldridge said. "I don't care what kind of mother you are, you need to take time to nourish yourself. ... For parents of children with disabilities, it's a lot harder to find time to recharge ourselves. ... That's what Challenged Child provides you; they give you not just a family but a respite."
Challenged Child and Friends, located in Gainesville, serves children ages 6 weeks to 6 years with state-of-the-art nursing, therapeutic, educational and family counseling services in a preschool environment. It serves not only special needs children, but also enrolls children with no physical or mental challenges.
Aldridge feels so strongly about what the school does that she feels it should be a national model for helping special-needs children and their families.
"Challenged Child is the answer," she said.
"No matter what your ability, disability, issue, they meet you where you are and they don't turn you away and they don't say ‘we can't handle it,'" Aldridge said. "They empower. ... They give families hope. They give families increased levels of competence and skills and hope for the future."
Aldridge and husband Keith, a Gainesville pediatrician, had their lives turned upside down by the tremendous amount of care both children require. Ryan is autistic and Julie is developmentally delayed. Taking care of Julie and Ryan means Donna Aldridge and her husband don't get a lot of alone time together.
"Our relationship centers around what we can do for them," Aldridge said.
When Ryan was born, Aldridge, who had been an attorney and busy member of the local community, said it took months to realize something may be wrong with her child. After starting to see that he may not be like other children, Aldridge admitted that she went through a range of emotions. After all, few mothers expect to have a special-needs child when they learn they're expecting.
"It's denial, really," she said. "It makes you feel kind of like guilty. You blame yourself. ‘What am I doing? What am I not doing?'"
Ryan was diagnosed as being autistic at age 2«, Aldridge said, shortly after her second child, Julie, was born. As Julie grew, Aldridge said she could begin to see some of the same characteristics displayed by Ryan, such as slow development of language skills. She admits that she is hesitant to have any more children, despite having dreamed of a large family.
Though she gets help from Challenged Child and the two young women she has hired to help at home, Donna Aldridge remains a dedicated mom who devotes her time and energy not only to the day-to-day care of her children, but also researching treatments and doctors to help them. Ryan is on a regimen of supplements and special foods, and he sees many doctors and therapists.
"I'm used to working hard and getting results. I've never had anything in my life where hard work and perseverance and a lot of research didn't take care of it. If you want something badly enough, you can affect a change," Aldridge said.
"I can't change this. I can try my damnedest to make it better. But autism's a lifelong disability. It's like getting hit by a bus; there's no cure, but you can recover."
Despite her struggles, it is clear to see how much Aldridge loves her children when she interacts with them -- playing in the water with Ryan or holding a sleepy Julie on her lap.
While she gets help in taking care of her children -- and herself -- from Challenged Child, she also squeezes into her busy schedule time as a member of the MOMS Club of Gainesville, which stands for Mothers Offering Mothers Support. Aldridge said she finds it helps her deal with her own struggles as a mom to minister to others. She also recently was honored as parent volunteer of the year by Challenged Child and Friends.
Aldridge was a semifinalist for a recent top mom competition by NBC's "Today" show, placing No. 16 out of 15 finalists, she said with a laugh. She had planned on donating any prize money to the school and using any media exposure in singing the praises of Challenged Child and the problems families across the country face from autism.
"Autism is a Hurricane Katrina ripping through our nation and our government is doing nothing about it," Aldridge said, noting that 86 percent of marriages end in divorce when a child is diagnosed with autism.
She doesn't hesitate to admit that she had misconceptions about Challenged Child before enrolling her son there. But she has seen the difference the school has made for her children and the positive affects it has on all the children who are enrolled there.
"Those people are like my family. I show up there and there is a sense of belonging," Aldridge said. "There's a sense of united purpose. There's a sense you're making a difference."