There's plenty to see at First Baptist Church of Geneva during a Buddy Break.
One boy carries an iPad next to his ear as he pieces together puzzles. In the same colorful room, an older boy strikes keys on a piano and a girl giggles as she kicks a ball with two women serving as her "buddies."
The lights and sounds of "Just Dance II" for Nintendo Wii brighten another space while kids in a "royal room" make pink princess tiaras or gold crowns to wear throughout the afternoon.
At one of the free Buddy Break sessions the church recently started to provide a few hours of relief for families of children with special needs, the basement was dedicated to 19 kids with disabilities and six siblings with the help of about 45 volunteers.
There's plenty to see, but volunteer Daryl Palumbo of Geneva says Buddy Breaks offer more than meets the eye.
"It's what we don't see," Palumbo said. "Somewhere, there's a mom and a dad and a sister shopping or doing something that they might not have done or that would have been more challenging."
Churches in Geneva, Sugar Grove and Wheaton have begun offering Buddy Breaks through a national nonprofit called Nathaniel's Hope, and other worship centers in locations such as Aurora and Naperville are making plans to launch the program.
Organizers say Buddy Breaks provide a few hours of fun and interaction for children with autism or other disabilities, while granting parents freedom from the responsibility of watching a child with special needs.
"It gives us an ability to catch up and breathe easy for a while and re-energize," said Matt Brooks of Batavia, whose 7-year-old son Tommy has a genetic disorder that causes developmental delays. "My wife and I will go on a date, have lunch and do errands."
Each child with special needs becomes a VIP during the Buddy Break, matched with a volunteer to serve as playmate, guardian and helper. Siblings get to stay, too, for activities like face-painting, music, magic and crafts, so parents can shop, clean, nap -- even go on a date.
"You're trying to make it a really special time for everyone in the family," said Dawn Clark, director of disability ministry at College Church in Wheaton, which began offering Buddy Breaks free to families last fall. "It really does meet a need for families."
Buddy Breaks started 10 years ago when Marie Kuck's Orlando-area family noticed the need for families of kids with special needs to recharge, de-stress and expose their children to opportunities for social development.
The death of Kuck's son, Nathaniel, at age 4 from complications of birth anomalies, motivated the family to help others with something as simple as a quiet afternoon, a few hours away from the constant burden of providing care.
"We're helping with caregiver burnout and helping to refresh parents," said Kuck, executive director of Nathaniel's Hope Foundation. "The No. 1 thing they need is a break."
Area churches that have begun offering Buddy Breaks mainly are doing so as an offshoot of Sunday school classes they already provide for children with special needs.
They're joining a national push for Buddy Breaks to expand from its current locations at 100 churches across the country to 1,000 locations by 2020, said Kuck, a Wheaton College graduate who is originally from the Chicago area.
Offering a respite for parents like Brooks is something volunteers at First Baptist Church of Geneva always wanted to do, said Jaimie Valentini, a special-education teacher and church volunteer.
Nearly 100 volunteers have gotten involved in just the first two months of offering the program.
"It just touched a lot of people's hearts to be involved, and not just for the kids, but to see a different perspective, to understand it from the parent's point of view," Valentini said.
"Tasks you take for granted you can do with your kids, parents of special needs kids don't have that luxury."
Valentini learned about Buddy Breaks at training held last May at College Church in Wheaton.
College Church's Clark met Kuck several years ago at a convention. While the two had discussed bringing Buddy Breaks to the Chicago area before, the timing wasn't right until last spring, when Kuck's daughter had begun attending Wheaton College.
The first training session equipped 11 churches in the suburbs as well as Indiana and Wisconsin with the legal, medical and organizational information to begin offering Buddy Breaks.
A new round of training will be offered in Wheaton beginning May 6, and Kuck said churches interested in joining can visit nathanielshope.org for details.
Nathaniel's Hope partners with local churches because they can offer ongoing support against the stress of finding doctors, teachers and finances to support a child with special needs.
"Here you have a hub of people who come together regularly and want to make a difference and want to bring hope and help to others," Kuck said. "It's a natural connection point."
The basement at First Baptist Church of Geneva becomes a playground for special needs kids, their siblings and their buddies during each Saturday Buddy Break the church hosts.
Classrooms are filled with toy cars, trucks and trains, ball pits and video games, while larger spaces hold a piano, a foosball table, mini basketball hoops and balls for playing catch or soccer. A sensory room gives kids a place to calm down with the touch and sound of sand, shaving cream or clay. And a quiet room with dim lighting allows a few of them to take a nap.
"What's really nice about Buddy Break is they have it all set up and they give you lots of ideas," Clark said.
Parents register ahead of time to provide medical information about their kids, and if a snack time is scheduled, they send along foods their child can eat.
Once a child is registered in the Buddy Break system, he or she can attend an event anywhere, Kuck said.
Nurses like Pam Harris of Batavia are on site as volunteers, often as glad to see kids out of the hospital as they are to facilitate a fun afternoon.
"I love the opportunity of letting their folks have a break," said Harris, a nurse in the pediatric intensive care unit at Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield.
During the first Buddy Break last month in Geneva, Debbie Abbs dropped off her 9-year-old son, Luke. He has autism, is largely nonverbal and is constantly on the move.
Abbs used the three-hour session to go out with her husband, but during the second Buddy Break on a recent Saturday, she took her 14-year-old son out for chicken wings. The meal would have been much more hectic if Luke was there, she said, because he needs constant supervision.
At quick-serve restaurants, the Abbs family will sit so Luke is "boothed in" between a parent and a wall, but slower meals are out of the question.
"When you have a special-needs child in particular," Abbs said, "It's a 24/7 job."