Raising Ethan Klima is no easy task. The 12-year-old with Down syndrome and autism behaves erratically, requiring his parents' constant attention. At home, he picks up large objects -- the television, the microwave -- and throws them at will.
Ethan's parents say they have virtually no time for such activities as shopping or a movie. Getting a good night's sleep is nearly impossible as well.
They've long wanted a place where they could drop their son off for the day but found none near their home in Fauquier County. Robert Klima said he even considered moving the family to Long Island after he toured a state-funded day-care center there.
Yesterday, a similar service opened in Fauquier. Now, parents of disabled children can leave them with professional caregivers one day a month while they tend to their own needs, or maybe just spend time with their other children.
The arrival of Mary's Family, which opened in the parish hall of Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Delaplane, was hailed by organizers, county supervisors and an aide to Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D).
Founder Martha Toomey said Mary's Family is the only operation of its kind in Northern Virginia's outer ring of counties -- Fauquier, western Loudoun, Culpeper, Rappahannock and Warren -- and one of just two in the region, the other being at McLean Bible Church on Route 7 near Tysons Corner.
"Sometimes you just want to say to the kid, 'Here's a can of Play-doh,' but Ethan needs one-on-one. It's been like passing a baton between me and my wife," said Klima, 50, who dropped his son off at Mary's Family yesterday morning so that he could prepare his house for a Christmas party. "Now this has started, and my wife and I can spend some time antiquing, shopping and, frankly, going somewhere alone."
Eight families participated in yesterday's inaugural event, paying $5 each to drop off their children. The youngsters drew in coloring books, received toys from Santa and made tree ornaments. More than a dozen volunteers -- adults as well as children -- and a nurse supervised and played with them. Some parents lingered to see how their children would react; others swapped parenting tips.
"There's another lady here who I want to meet, like me, who has a disabled kid and a typical kid," said Ann Masch-Cohen. "None of my friends have disabled kids. And you don't want sympathy, you want information."
Mary's Family, named for Toomey's grandmother and sisters, will be open one Saturday each month, rotating among churches in the county, which has some 1,400 families with disabled children, Toomey said. At the Jan. 11 session, to be hosted by Grace Episcopal Church in The Plains, the children will dance and learn to play musical instruments.
Toomey said the idea of specialized day care came to her seven years ago when her infant son, Jeffrey, was found to have a seizure disorder. Rearing him has consumed her, she said, even affecting her health.
"I'm a mom who's been in hell for eight years, but I feel like an expert. I know what mothers like me need."
Last summer, Toomey met with Kaine, who chairs the Virginia Disability Commission, but was told that the state's budget shortfall ruled out any government funding of her project.
This fall, she sought out the Bloomfield Foundation, which supports disabled children. The foundation gave her $20,000. And last week, the Philip. L. Graham Fund, named for the former publisher of The Washington Post, donated $10,000.
Toomey said the money will help pay for, among other things, coupons for parents to receive discounts on haircuts, massages and manicures.
Alison Wheeler, 29, of Warrenton has a 3-year-old daughter with Down syndrome and works two jobs. Wheeler already knows she's going to like Mary's Family.
"I think I am going to take my 9-year-old to see a movie" on next month's day-care day, she said. "The last one I saw was 'Titanic.' "