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On the Park Bench: How this nanny who cares for special needs kids keeps moving forward

Julia Beck
Nov. 2, 2018

Ana Deferrari, a New York City-based caregiver with more than 25 years experience, describes herself as a lifelong learner. She graduated from Hunter College, studied early childhood education at the City College of New York, plans to pursue a master’s degree and regularly attends courses and conferences to expand her knowledge. But in her current job, caring for an 11-year-old wheelchair-bound girl with special needs, she says she’s learning the most from the child and her family.

“The parents and especially the little girl teach me, not the other way around,” Ana says. “They have the challenges of city living with a disability down to a science. Plus, their optimism is contagious and uplifting.”

Ana says the family provides an outstanding support system, respecting her time and her need to care for herself in order to care for the girl and her older sister. To Ana, this collaboration and mutual respect is the secret to their three-plus-year success in working together.

Between her work for this family and other families she cares for, we asked Ana 10 questions about all she’s learned along the way.

1. What is your favorite snack for kids?  

Once clear what foods are safe for each kid, I go for healthy — meaning no processed foods and also fun snacks. On my short list are finger foods (hands washed first, please!), like peanut butter and apples, celery with peanut butter and raisins (AKA, ants on a log) or homemade avocado toast. For non-activity snacks, Trader Joe’s dried fruit strips work well.

2. What are your favorite kids books?

  • “I Dissent” by Debbie Levy (about Ruth Bader Ginsburg)

  • “The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats

  • “Fairy Tales” by E.E. Cummings

3. When all else fails?

With a meltdown, I always make sure the kids are safe. From there my “go to” is to not scream, but rather to be firm and listen. I learned these techniques working with profoundly autistic kids. Once when playing keyboard, I was mildly irritated as a boy had flung a table. I let him cool off. I did not show any signs of frustration. I just let him be. From this experience, I learned to give kids some space, maintain an even tone and focus on finding the root and identifying the immediate need.

4. Favorite autumn kids activity?

It is really my favorite time of the year! I love to be outside, in the park and find quiet things to do, such as finding and feeding birds. The goal is to engage with as much nature as possible and really enjoy the air, the sky — all of it!

5. Guiltiest pleasure?

I adore milk chocolate dipped in peanut butter!

6. What's always in your bag?  

That is a long list! It includes: something to write with, tissues, plastic bags, wipes, cheddar goldfish, granola bars, water, random toys, hand sanitizer, lip balm and, of course, an umbrella.

7. What's one thing about kids you wish every adult knew

Simply, every behavior — positive or negative — is a kid trying to communicate or express something. I wish more adults were aware of this and operated from this perspective when dealing with kids.

8. Is it ever OK to wake a sleeping baby?

I try not to. I only wake if there’s a choking hazard or if parents or a medical provider say please don’t let them sleep past X time, if involved with routine development. So my answer is no, unless I am being directed otherwise. This is mainly because I believe babies really know what they need.  

9. Best advice for self-care?  

Well that is a paradox! When it comes to caring for someone, they come before you, but you have to preserve yourself, as well. I think it is critical to take real breaks at work to avoid burnout. I get outside, because fresh air and a change of lighting are so important. Outside of work, I remain physically active through yoga. I enjoy writing and reading poetry. I am reading Haiku right now.

10. What will come next for you?

I will decide on which master’s program to pursue (disability studies or speech pathology) and then go for it! And, in the more distant future, I plan to author a children’s book.

Read next: On the Park Bench with Alexandra

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