Raising a child with profound mental, physical, or emotional needs—not to mention frequent diaper changes—is a demanding, around-the-clock job. Parents need an occasional break, and Rosemary Dutter is on call to provide it.
A decade ago, she transformed a single-family home into The Dutter House, a safe, welcoming place for special needs children. While Dutter plays, sings, and giggles with her charges for a few hours, parents and siblings are free to run errands, watch a movie, or just relax.
“A child with a disability is harder than you imagine,” says Dutter, a sales associate at Century 21 Affiliated in Beloit, Wis. “Parents might be stressed when they drop off their child, and when they come back, they are ready to start up again.”
Dutter understands the challenges all too well. She was the grandparent of a child who had severe developmental delays. Kyle didn’t understand safety issues and had to be watched constantly because he put everything in his mouth and threw things. His father quit his job to become his full-time caregiver and school aide, and Dutter helped out as much as possible. Kyle died in 2008 when he was 12. The Dutter House is her way of honoring his short life.
Every Child Is Special and Loved
The Dutter House is open by appointment on weekdays from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.—from after school until bedtime—but Dutter has been known to extend the hours in cases of emergency or special events. "The whole family appreciates this,” says Dutter, who is onsite whenever children are present. “The grandparents are appreciative. They don’t always want to be the ones who have to step in.”
On a typical day, between one and four children visit. They range in age from 2 to 18, and their medical conditions vary. Some are nonverbal. Some are in wheelchairs. Sometimes they pinch or kick or hit. Dutter tailors activities to engage each child according to their interests and abilities. She reads books aloud and changes diapers. A handful of volunteers assist with child care, cooking, and yard work. Dutter's goal is for the children to feel secure and loved, even though some can never respond.
“I feel this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” Dutter says. “It’s often difficult, but it is rewarding. It gives me peace.”
One regular is a boy with autism who is captivated by machines, particularly her Shark Rocket vacuum cleaner. When he visits, he takes it apart and puts it together while explaining what each part is and how it works. Then he vacuums the floor.
The boy also whips up fruit smoothies in the blender, but he won’t drink them. Dutter makes a game of getting him to promise to taste the smoothie, and she smiles when he doesn’t.
Respite Time is Family Time
Most Dutter House clients are long-timers, like Makayla Champion. Her 10-year-old son Camdyn has been visiting twice a week for six years. Camdyn is a traumatic brain injury survivor who has autism and visual impairments. He also has epilepsy. He needs constant care, so Champion and her husband work opposite shifts.” Our everyday lives and what we do on our days off together always depend on his mood,” Champion says. “He can make a day fun or very difficult.”
Camdyn has a special love for music. His vocabulary is limited, but he can memorize songs. He and Dutter will spend hours singing while Camdyn’s parents focus on their two older sons, ages 12 and 16. Sometimes they eat at restaurants. Other times they go fishing or play basketball.
“A child with disabilities is not the dream. It’s harder than you can ever imagine.” —Rosemary Dutter
“If not for The Dutter House, life would be a lot more stressful,” says Champion. “Even though it’s only three hours, it’s three hours well needed. The (older) boys wouldn’t have that undivided attention.”
When Camdyn knows he will see Dutter that day, he is especially upbeat. “He adores her, and she adores him,” Champion says. “I always say she’s the grandmother everybody wants.”
Aimee Thurner, executive director at the Greater Beloit Chamber of Commerce, says she is thankful the respite program is available to the community.” What Rosemary created is such a niche but one that has a huge impact on the families,” she says. “Special needs children are so time-consuming, and she gives to them with passion and heart.”
Dutter has spent most of her life working with children. She was an elementary school teacher for 39 years before retiring in 2005, the same year she launched her real estate career.
The idea for a nonprofit had been brewing in her mind, and clicked one day during an open house she was holding. The home had 3,500 square feet and an acre of land. With the help of grant money, she bought the house, put up a fence, and built a ramp to the front door. Since 2009, The Dutter House has served about 30 client families.
A Big-Hearted Community Chips In
Dutter runs a bare-bones operation with an annual budget of about $22,000, which is raised primarily through county funding and private donations. She pays for most of the food and toys. An Eagle Scout built a swing set, and a church group built a large sandbox.
“I can get so low on money, and I wonder how I’m going to keep this going, but then I get a call from someone who says, ‘We had a fundraiser for you,’” she says. “This community has supported me very well. They are good people with great hearts.”
Despite the painful loss of her grandson, Dutter says she finds comfort in sharing memories of their playful moments together and by giving other parents the breaks she knows are so crucial to family life. “I choose to do this,” she says. “The parents don’t have a choice. They have to do it every day.”
Contact Rosemary Dutter at email@example.com and learn more about The Dutter House Inc. at https://www.facebook.com/The-Dutter-House-293319459135/.