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Team attends training for special needs families

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- There's no way to prepare for having a special needs child.

"You go through the whole process (similar to) experiencing a death. There's the guilt, the anger, there's the denial," said Maj. Benjamin Salvador, test director for the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center, Detachment 4.

Salvador, whose son is severely autistic, found his passion for educating parents of special needs children at this year's Specialized Training of Military Parents workshop. Parents of special needs children tend to be isolated. "You waste your years when you could have done something actively," he said.

His message to parents: there's hope out there.

Salvador; Jackie Wickham, 21st Space Wing Exceptional Family Member Program coordinator; and Shirley Swope, parent advisor at the Peak Parent Center, represented local military families at the STOMP workshop July 26-30 in Seattle, Wash.

The three made up one of six teams selected from military installations worldwide.

"One of the purposes of this training is when we come back, the three of us will get together and we have to come up with a goal," Wickham said. "How are we going to share this information with other parents? There's all of these things that parents don't know unfortunately, until it's sometimes too late."

Among the information the team wants to pass along includes available government funding, what Tricare and Extended Care Health Option offer, how to work with a school district on an individual education plan, how to set up a trust and guardianship for the child, and how to transition a special needs child to adulthood.

"A lot of it is getting in touch with people that are in your situation. Once you pretty much get mentored by or walk along side some person who's gone through what you're trying to go through, that makes it a whole lot easier," Salvador said.

Most information gets passed along by word of mouth, Wickham said, and if a parent isn't connected to some kind of network, they could be missing valuable opportunities to help their family.

"There are so many resources out there, as one person it's really hard to know everything and see everything," she said.

Every summer, STOMP hosts six to eight different teams at the workshop to inform as many people as possible.

Being a military family with a specials needs child presents its own challenges. It takes time to get established with new healthcare providers and new school districts every time a family moves. Salvador said they want to give parents a good foundation incase there isn't the same kind of support group at the next base. "You have to be proactive," he said.

The team said they want to establish a network of parents who can support each other through their struggles and victories and share what resources are available. They plan on starting a monthly support group for all military parents in the area.

"We're not just going to meet and talk about how bad things are," Wickham said. "Every month there will be some kind of informational, educational training for parents."

Trainings would cover all of the things the team learned at the workshop and other issues brought up by parents. A detailed plan will be written up soon and meetings could start before the end of the year. For Team Pete, the end of STOMP is just the beginning.

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