Chrystal Welsh's eyesight isn't as good as it once was. Her stride isn't as brisk.
But 5-year-old Cami Juretich doesn't notice that time has taken its toll on her 78-year-old friend.When Welsh's gnarled hands hold Cami's tiny ones, the Down's syndrome child feels a helping hand, squeezing in love, support and friendship.
Welsh is a Family Friend - one of 40 active senior citizens who spend up to four hours a couple of times a week enhancing the life of a disabled or chronically ill child.
The Family Friend Project, operated under the auspices of the Utah Easter Seal Society, is designed to help family members, including siblings, deal with some of the stress related to caring for children with special needs. It is co-sponsored by the Utah Division of Aging and Adult Services and Salt Lake County Aging Services.
And Family Friends are just that. They share a variety of activities with the child, such as playing, arts and crafts, hobbies, sports or even homework. Or friends are there just to talk or listen and do the things friends do.
"One of the advantages of Family Friends is that they are caring for the children in the comfort of the child's friendly surroundings - the family home," said Jay Rosenberg, program director. "Therefore it's not a stressful situation for the children."
"They are also a friend to the parents and siblings, because often times a disabled child takes so much time and attention that sometimes the siblings resent him or her," added Stella Allen, assistant director of the Family Friends Project. "The Family Friend comes in and allows the parents time with their healthy, normal children as well. Or the friend spends time with the normal children so parents can have special one-on-one time with the handicapped child."
In the case of the Juretich Family, Welsh is a friend to the whole tribe.
"Chrystal is kind of like another grandmother to us. The kids really like her and we all have a great time together," said Collette Juretich.
Family Friends arrive at someone's doorstep only after undergoing an extensive training program during which they learn about developmental disabilities and chronic illness, first aid and community resources.
They also receive hands-on experience at a local school with children who have disabilities. Only then are they matched with a family. After three months of service, the volunteers are ready to do respite care.
Because the Easter Seal Society serves all disabled children, the need for Family Friends is great.
"We have 40 active volunteers, with 11 more signed up for training at the end of the month," Allen said. "But we have a waiting list of 20 children who suffer from various types of disabilities from Down's syndrome, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and more." All the children are under the age of 12.
Volunteers must be at least 55 years old. They qualify as a Family Friend if they love children, have compassion for the special needs of the chronically ill or disabled, and are sensitive, patient and flexible in dealing with their particular needs.
That list of requirements fits Welsh like a glove. She's been working as a Family Friend since June.
"I like children, and when I heard about this I thought it would be really nice to do," she said.
Welsh admits she receives as much as she gives. "I get the love and that from the children."
No financial reward could mean as much.