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Thou wilt show me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of  joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for ever more.  Psalms 16:11

Special Needs Support Groups

By Adrianne Elbe and Jane Gambill

Are you the parent of a special needs child? Do you look with longing at the homeschool support groups your friends are involved in, yet feel overwhelmed at the prospects of going with your extra special child? Do you attend yet feel like you donít quite fit in because your needs are so very different? If so, you are not alone. We, of the Illinois Christian Home Educators (ICHE) Special Needs (S/Nís) committee, receive many calls and e-mails asking where to find S/Nís support groups. As homeschooling has become more mainstream, groups of all kinds abound, but for the parents of special needs children support is harder to find. Take heart and be encouraged! If you canít find what you are seeking, prayerfully consider starting a S/Nís support group!

In response to your many inquiries we did just that in September of 2003. We wanted to discover how difficult it would be to start a group and what the needs of the members would be. We will share what we learned and give you some general tips on starting a support group.

Need - Research by contacting ICHE to make sure there is not a S/Nís support group in your area that will meet your specific needs. Other resources to check are the public library, local homeschool internet e-mail loops, and your homeschooling friends. Even if there is an existing group in the area it might not meet all needs

Getting Started - Once you have determined that there is not a group that will meet your needs; you can began the process of starting one. It is best if the group can be started with the help of a few homeschool friends who share similar concerns and needs. This also takes the full responsibility for the group off the shoulders of any one person. That would be the ideal situation. But maybe you donít even know any other families homeschooling a ďspecialĒ child. If the Lord is nudging you, ask your friends and family for prayer as you step out in faith and trust the Lord to connect you with others with similar needs. Contact ICHE and they will send you a support group information packet to help you get started.

Group Emphasis - Before the first meeting can take place, a number of decisions concerning the group should be made, one of which is the type, or emphasis of the group. What will the focus of the group be? For example, our support group is primarily for parents who are teaching their special needs children at home. The main focus of our group is to provide a forum for parents of ďspecialĒ children to meet and be encouraged as they share together. We did bring in one guest speaker last year, but the greatest need of our members was for a place to share and be encouraged by those who can understand and empathize with their struggles. A group can be very formal and include a board, a charter, bylaws, and may even collect dues. The group may also be as informal as a few people sitting around a table once a month discussing their successes and failures; sharing what is working and what is not. With all the options, it is helpful to start out with an idea of what you desire the style and focus of your group to be. Over time your vision may change but it is good to have a direction from which to begin.

Meetings - Determine how often the support group will meet, what time of day the meeting will take place, and where the meetings will be held. The frequency of the meetings will most likely be determined by the schedules of the initial group leaders. Will you meet once a month, every other month, year round, only September through May? The type of group may dictate when the meetings take place. A support group for parents may take place in the evenings. An activity support group that includes children will usually take place in the daytime. Consider all options, but keep in mind it may not be possible to please everyone. Meetings may occur in a variety of places. Some smaller groups prefer to meet in the homes of members. Group members may choose take turns hosting meetings. Another option is a church. Many churches are willing to provide community outreach to groups. When publicizing a group that meets at a church it may be necessary to make it clear that joining the hosting church is not a requirement of group membership. Another option, and the one that we have chosen, is a local public library. Most libraries have meeting rooms which are available for use by groups. The meeting space is large and comfortable, and audiovisual equipment is often available if necessary. A library may also be seen as a more ďneutralĒ setting to prospective members.

Publicizing - Once you have determined the type of group and the time, day and place where you will be meeting, it is time to begin publicizing the group and attracting potential members. If the meetings will take place in a church or library, you can ask if they will be willing to help advertise the group. Networking with other homeschoolers can be very effective and posting on internet message boards specific to your area, or advertising on local homeschool e-mail groups is another good way to get the word out. Informational flyers may be posted at local stores on their community message boards. Some newspapers will run information on support groups for free or at a reduced rate. Once you have done all you know to do; pray that the information will get into the hands of those who need what your group will offer.

The First Meeting - You have secured your meeting place, and you have advertised your group. Now relax! The first meeting will probably be somewhat informal as you get acquainted with one another, discover the special needs of everyoneís child/children, and discuss the focus this group will take. Donít be discouraged if only a few individuals attend the first meeting. Over the nine months of our meetings last year we had as many as ten and as few as three attend. No matter the number, at the end of each meeting we had the sense that it was definitely worth the effort. Continue to network and advertise your group, and plan for your next meeting. As the group begins to expand, you might decide to put together a membership list, a monthly newsletter, and possibly a monthly calendar of activities. But remember, none of this is necessary. Consider the time available and the abilities of the leadership; then choose to do the things that best meet the needs of the members.

Periodically evaluate the group emphasis. Your support group may be the springboard for many other activities: roundtable discussions, a forum for guest speakers and therapists, an avenue for curriculum sharing/exchange, and an opportunity for park days and field trips where children may be able to meet and socialize. A group can aid in making many new, rewarding friendships and offer that much needed support. There is a lot a support group can do, but be careful not to attempt too much in the beginning! Start slow and add as there is interest. Your group may grow quite large or remain small and bring comfort and encouragement to a few. Whatever the size, beginning, and running a support group can be a very rewarding experience, and a tremendous help to all those involved. We look forward to hearing of the formation of many new groups in Illinois and helping to connect S/Nís families with one another. May the Lord bless you in your endeavor!

Adrianne Elbe and Jane Gambill work together, along with Buffi Crouch , on the ICHE Special Needs committee (Illinois Christian Home Educators).  For more articles by the ICHE team, check their web site at:  www.iche.org Ė (click on special needs)