IT'S Saturday morning at Monkey Joe’s, and the colorful indoor playground percolates with happy squeals. Children chase each other around the carpeted room, launching themselves from soft slides and bouncing among the inflatable platforms.
Most parents and caregivers loiter around the fringes of the chaos or sit at tables looking at their phones, but a few are walking towards the door.
Mikeelah Anthony has just dropped off her oldest son, 8 year-old Cameron, with the teen volunteers of UTime, a free “day out” service for parents of children with special needs. Now she can’t decide if she should go shopping or take a nap.
“It’s been so long since I’ve had three hours to myself, I don’t know what to do,” laughs Anthony, describing Cameron, who has autism, as a “bundle of energy.” “I’m so grateful this exists.”
Created in 2015 by Savannah Country Day School student Lily Glass, UTime offers supervised activities, unstructured fun and a pizza lunch to kids with developmental and physical challenges—and a much-needed break for their moms and dads.
“Parents are caring for them twenty-four-seven, so this gives them a chance to relax,” says Lily, who launched the program the summer before her sophomore year.
“My mother is a pediatric physical therapist, so I grew up seeing what a commitment it is to raise a child with special needs. When I started looking around for community service opportunities, I saw that there wasn’t anything like this.”
She began recruiting her friends as volunteers, and now more than 40 students from SCDS, St. Vincent’s Academy, BC and other area high schools choose to spend occasional Saturday mornings skipping through the bounce houses, each paired with a special friend, ranging in age from four to 12.
Monkey Joe’s donates the space, allowing UTime to set up once a month during the school year and once a week in the summertime. Many of the volunteers are CPR-certified, and there is always a registered nurse on duty in case of an emergency. Parents must register their child in advance, and all capacity levels are welcome to inquire.
“Even if they can’t jump, kids can come and play games, do puzzles and just hang out with us,” encourages Lily.
“We try to pair up with the same kids every time, so there are a lot of great friendships that happen.”
Her mother, Liz Glass, who has worked as an aquatic therapist for over 17 years, says she offered her daughter a bit of professional advice but that the project has blossomed through Lily’s passion for the children and fundraisers like T-shirt sales and a partnership with Savannah Power Yoga.
“She just took it and ran with it,” says Liz proudly.
“But she couldn’t have done it without help. What this has taught all of us is that all you have to do is ask, and this community is right behind you.”
Watching volunteer Grayson Rhangos and participant Daniela Martinez holding hands on their way to one of Monkey Joe’s giant purples slides, Liz smiles.
“Teenagers tend to look to hang out with kids who are like them, which is totally normal. What I think is also valuable here is that these teens are learning they can be friends with different kids, and that’s wonderful,” she says.
Now a senior, Lily is busy applying to colleges (Vanderbilt is her top pick) but promises UTime will continue under the direction of vice president Ally Best.
“We’d like it to keep growing, maybe add some new activities and venues,” she says.
“There are so many people who end up benefitting from this—the parents, the kids and the volunteers.”
While UTime was conceived with special needs parents in mind, one of the major benefits for them is the knowledge that their children are in an environment where they can have a break from societal pressures. This is true for Anthony, who shares that Cameron has had negative experiences with kids who don’t understand his condition.
“I feel comfortable leaving him here because there are kids like him,” she says as she watches her son run off to the nearest bounce castle, two new friends right behind him.
“This is respite for me, but it’s also a chance for him to be fully himself without judgment.”