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Truly a gift to families

Published May 18, 2007


One Saturday morning every month, 8-year-old Logan Dingle gets himself up extra early, puts on his special T-shirt and fixes his own snack before his mom gets up.

Logan, who is autistic, has no real sense of the calendar. But on this Saturday, he knows it's time for Buddy Break.

"A good week or so beforehand, he already is saying, 'I want to go to Buddy Break, ' " said his mother, Candy, 41, of Arbor Green.

Started by the Nathaniel's Hope Ministry of Orlando, Buddy Break is a free Christian-based program that teams up disabled children with trained volunteers one on one. The pair spends three hours in enrichment activities at a participating church. The child benefits, but so do caretakers, who get a much-needed break.

St. James United Methodist Church, at 16202 Bruce B. Downs Blvd., is the only church in the Tampa Bay area that offers the program, one Saturday morning each month, to anyone with a special-needs child.

Buddy Break came to St. James through church member Sally DePalma, whose 9-year-old daughter, Leah, is autistic. For years DePalma had wanted to start a Sunday school program for challenged children, but the task seemed too daunting. When she learned about Buddy Break about a year ago, it was the perfect opportunity to bring a program to St. James that would address this exceptional population of children and their entire families.

"We've got over 30, 000 children in Hillsborough County that are in special-education programs, " said DePalma, a pharmacist. "Churches just haven't understood the need, so we're part of the education process."

When St. James held its first "Disability Awareness Service" on Palm Sunday last year, 80 people expressed an interest in volunteering. One month later, the first Buddy Break was hosted, and there were more than enough volunteers to match up with the 13 children who had registered.

Today, more than 60 children from Sarasota to Spring Hill have participated in the program at St. James, and there is now a pool of more than 100 trained volunteers, DePalma said.

Each month she finds out how many of her volunteers are available for the next Buddy Break Saturday, and then accepts children on a first-come, first-served basis.

Children are dropped off at St. James at 10 a.m. and are greeted by their preassigned volunteer. For the next three hours the duos participate in a joint circle time and activities they chose. Each is in a different room, from music, dance and arts and crafts to floor and board games. In a "puppy room, " certified therapy dogs are available to interact with the children.

Lindsey Danner, 11, who has Down's syndrome, is especially receptive to the program, said her mom, Jana, because she gets to pick which rooms she goes to.

"For once, she gets to be the decisionmaker, " said Danner, 38, of Tampa Palms. "And she loves the one-on-one attention."

Danner, a stay-at-home mom of three, is particularly enthusiastic about the program because St. James has now started a ministry for the siblings. While children are at Buddy Break, siblings might spend the morning rock climbing, bowling, canoeing or seeing a movie, all sponsored by the church and free to participants.

Since moving to Tampa from Arkansas almost a year ago, Danner said that she and her husband, Chris, have not been out one night alone without their children.

"Buddy Break is our one and only time every month to get together, maybe go shopping or have a little daytime date, without our children, " she said.

Contact reporter Sheryl Kay with any religion news at or 813 230-8788.

Fast Facts:


Buddy Break

Open to all special-needs children ages 2 to 16. Sessions are planned June 16, July 14, Aug. 11, Sept. 8, Oct. 13, Nov. 10 and Dec. 1.

To sign up or learn about volunteering, call Sally DePalma at 971-4790, ext. 234.

Churches interested in starting a Buddy Break program can get more information at


[Last modified May 17, 2007, 07:36:38]

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