How to Grow Your Own Parent Support Group
By Lisa Simmons USA
Parent support groups are a terrific way for parents facing similar, challenging situations in life to offer each other encouragement, share ideas, and generally reduce the stress of a trying time. Unfortunately, parent support groups are often started and lead by Moms who may have little experience organizing and managing a group. This can lead to poor outcomes for individual group members and great frustration for the group leader. If you are struggling to get your parent support group up and running, here are some tips to help your group really take off!
1. Learn from the experts.
The staff at Parent to Parent of Pennsylvania have put together an online guide that goes through all the basics of starting and running a parent support group. Visit: http://www.parenttoparent.org
2. Identify why people aren't coming.
If you know there are a pool of parents in your area facing the challenges your group addresses, the first thing you need to figure out is -- what road blocks are keeping these folks from attending your meetings.
=> Is childcare an issue?
=> Are the speakers/topics you're selecting relevant to the age of their kids?
=> Are your meetings too structured or too informal to meet their current needs?
=> Is your meeting site unfamiliar or difficult to find if you are drawing parents from multiple communities?
=> Do your meetings seem to go on forever, break down into a hundred mini-conversations or run out of steam due to poor group participation?
Once you know the real issue(s) holding your group back, it will be much easier to solve them. You can arrange for on- site childcare, find different speakers, include a map with your meeting reminder, etc. For tips on how to keep your meetings flowing see, "Facilitation: The Importance of Managing Group Meetings" at: http://www.nacac.org/pg_facilitation.html
3. Talk honestly with your core group about your frustrations and limitations. Most groups have a small group of loyal attendees. These are the folks that should be stepping up to help you out. Most likely one of two things is happening -- either they don't know that you are feeling exhausted and overextended or they don't know how to help. By talking honestly with this small group about your frustrations, you can open the door to solving the issues as a group. Also, remember that volunteering does not come naturally to many people; especially if the tasks that need done are things they've not done before. They may feel intimidated by what a good job you've done and feel they could never put together anything half as good. Look for small un- intimidating tasks that will help them get their feet wet or invite them to "help you" do some of the tasks that need to get done. This way they get involved, they become familiar with a part of the job you would like to delegate, and you get some immediate relief.
4. Try to determine why word of mouth isn't helping your group.
Most parent support groups grow primarily by word of mouth because they are truly fulfilling the needs of their members. Everyone wants to share a solution.
=> Are your present members reluctant to recommend your group? If so, why?
=> Have you notified local professionals that your group is available?
Many professionals who work with parents would love to have a flyer or contact name to offer when faced with a distraught, stressed out, or overwhelmed parent. Professionals to consider are: doctors, case managers, special education or other school staff, preschool or early intervention programs, hospital social workers, speech therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and vocational rehabilitation workers.
=> Have you utilized the local public service announcement system? These are usually free and can be done in newspapers, on the radio, or on local access cable networks. Be sure to focus not only on the where, what and when of your group but also on the benefits your group can offer such as: *Providing on-going support *Helping in times of crisis *Sharing positive coping strategies *Helping focus anger and energy in positive ways *Sharing information, ideas and resources *Providing training for parents to increase skills *Help in dealing with educational, medical and other service agencies *The opportunity to relieve loneliness and form new friendships
5. Consider merging.
Maybe a parent's group focused only on a single issue (i.e. parenting a child with Down syndrome) isn't a major need in your community. If you can't create an active group, consider shifting to a group that meets the needs of a broader group of parents (i.e. raising children with special needs). One benefit of merging -- access to another person used to leading. If both you and the other group's leader are stretched for time and energy, consider alternating the lead role. This way you each immediately have your workload reduced by half and can both benefit from the talents and experiences of the other.
6. Make use of technology.
When you're looking for ways to reduce your legwork and maximize participation, the Internet can be a terrific ally.
=> Send out your group newsletter by email to reduce both financial and time expenditures.
=> Send out flyers and meeting reminders by email. => Consider starting an electronic discussion list for your group. Services like Topica.com and Yahoo Groups allow you to do this free of charge. The advantage of having this type of list is that the group members can interact more frequently and build more rapport -- this way they are coming to see friends when meeting time roles around, not strangers. The other advantage is that it allows families to participate that may not be able to arrange childcare during the scheduled meeting times.
=> Make contact with other parents online. For example, both NICHCY and Wrightslaw.com offer state resource sheets for parents of children with special needs. By sending an email to the contact person listed on these sites, you could have your group listed as an available support in your state. NICHCY State Resources Page http://www.nichcy.org/states.htm Wrightslaw Yellow Pages for Kids with Disabilities http://www.fetaweb.com/help/states.htm I hope that some of these ideas will help get your group growing into the active and productive one you envisioned!
© 2003, Lisa Simmons. All Rights Reserved.
Lisa is the author of "Birth of an Advocate"; an interactive workbook series that helps parents of children with special needs become knowledgeable, articulate, effective advocates!
Visit Lisa online at: http://www.ideallives.com/birth_of_an_advocate.htm