When your child needs therapy to speak, eat, sit up, walk, make eye contact and reach other milestones, the outside world can be a scary place.
"I never really understood how isolating it was for some of these families. These families stay in their homes and they are very vulnerable," says Beth Deiter, an Arlington Heights speech-language pathologist who worked 12 years at what is now Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. She started her home-based therapy practice after she and her husband, Chris, had daughter Cecilia, now 10, and son Elliott, now 8. While neither of her children needed therapy, she saw the need to offer more support to those who do.
"I didn't know what to do, so I started a Facebook group," Deiter says of her online effort five years ago. Today, her group at cityofsupport.org is a growing not-for-profit charity with C.I.T.Y. short for Children In Therapy and You.
"Delayed, disability, special needs -- a lot of those words really turn off parents," Deiter says. "So we went with children in therapy."
Not wanting to limit the group to children diagnosed on the autism spectrum, with Down syndrome or some other developmental disorder, Deiter says everybody is welcome under the umbrella of her charity, which incorporated in 2018 and now boasts more than 3,500 members and no paid staffers.
Deiter, who grew up in Buffalo Grove and graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before receiving a master's degree in communication disorders at the University of Minnesota, works with libraries, park districts, gyms and other agencies.
"Our mission is to create a community online and in person," she says. Parents and kids loved the play groups at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library done with the cooperation of Maria Papanastassiou, an assistant manager/youth librarian who works on the library's disabilities inclusion team and serves on the charity's board, Deiter says. The pandemic moved play groups and other gatherings online, but C.I.T.Y. has adapted well, Deiter says. This year's monthlong "We Love Our C.I.T.Y." celebration throughout February, and a Valentine's event will be virtual.
"Sometimes you just need to have people understand that your child is different," says Dana Schafer of Lake Zurich. Now a C.I.T.Y. board member, Schafer and her husband, Matt, reached out to Deiter after the state had cut the early intervention program for their daughter, Ayla, who was born early at 24 weeks, 5 days at 1 pound, 7 ounces and spent her first four months in the hospital.
"I was hysterical. I didn't know what to do," remembers Schafer, who says C.I.T.Y. provides the support she needs. "This place has made all the unknowns not as scary. I learned so much from the conversations I had with parents."
Now 8, Ayla is thriving in second grade and has her Girl Scout troop raising funds for A Feisty Little Miracle, the Schafers' charity that delivers goody bags to other families as they bring their babies home from hospitals. C.I.T.Y. of Support provides similar services at Northwest Community Healthcare in Arlington Heights, Advocate Children's hospitals in Park Ridge and Oak Lawn, Northwestern Medicine Prentice Women's Hospital in Chicago, and Amita Health Alexian Brothers in Hoffman Estates.
"One of my favorite events is the graduation celebration," says board member Terry Labanowski of Mount Prospect. Labanowski remembers the joy of her 6-year-old daughter, who is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, graduating from preschool and moving on to kindergarten, where she loves reading and math. "One of the biggest things is knowing your family is not alone."
C.I.T.Y. of Support provides a chance to exchange ideas, vent and share.
"We have professionals and parents, and professionals who are parents. Everything is parent-driven," Deiter says. "But one of the things we really want to do is showcase these children and celebrate all their accomplishments."