Starting a support group for parents of children with diabilities can be both rewarding and challenging. Deciding when and where to meet may seem like the logical place to start, but there are many things to consider before you set a meeting schedule. Preparation and planning provide a strong foundation for your group and directs group activities designed to meet your goals.
Identify the purpose of the your group. A support group for parents of children with disabilities could be open to all parents of children with disabilities or restrict its foucs to a particular disability. If the mission is to provide support and education to all parents, broad goals covering common issues can be addressed. A specific focus, like autism, will serve a smaller group of parents, but can provide more specific information and resources that pertain solely to autism.
Evaluate the resources that exist within your community to determine whether a need for your group exists. Perhaps there are several groups in your community that address general concerns like access to educational services, behavior management and stress reduction, but none that focus on the specific needs of autism. Consider creating a group with a specific focus as an offset of an existing group designed to meet the needs of all parents of children with disabilities. This may attract financial support and guidance while providing resources other groups in your area do not provide.
Form a committee to develop a mission statement and set the goals of the group. State the overall reason for the group in clear concise terms. Anyone who reads your mission statement should immediately understand what your group is and what it believes. The goals should reflect specific measurable steps to fulfill your mission. For example, your mission may be to improve the lives of children with ADHD by providing education and training to parents, caregivers and teachers. Your goals may be to provide parenting classes, provide educators with current research, and to provide caregivers with brochures with tips for working with children with ADHD.
Contact organizations that can provide resources for your group.. The US Department of Education and the Children’s Disabilities Information Center publish free publications on children’s disabilities and educational issues. Your local State Department of Education Office can provide educational publications and resources for parents and caregivers. Contact your State Disabilities Council for information and resources in your area.
Solicit professionals in the field who can provide training and guidance in the specific focus of your support group. This may include medical professionals, counselors, or psychologial service providers who have training and experience in the area of concern. Verify the credentials of any guest speakers before scheduling them to speak.
Set the ground rules for the group. Knowing upfront what is expected of members will help you keep on track and enforce those guidelines. Include membership requirements and rules for standard behavior and participation. Establish plans for educating all members on the importance of confidentiality and decide now what measures will be taken if members breach confidentiality. Groups that do not respect the confidentiality of others will soon struggle to maintain membership.
Choose a method to determine who will facilitate meetings. Consider alternating responsibility between members to lighten the load on any one person. Set the format for the agenda, including the time and duration of presentations by guest speakers, and set a time limit for discussion. Although you may wish to have time allotted for socializing, without a time structure your group is likely to succumb to unproductive negative chat. Keep it focused on the positive and let everyone know how long specific meetings are expected to last. You can always make exceptions when the need arises, but a general statement of meeting times allows others to budget their time and plan accordingly.
Consider sources of funding and decide how that funding will be attained. Contact your State Disabilities Council or the Department of Mental Health for a list of funding sources in your area. Check with large businesses in your area and inquire about any community giving projects they operate. Many provide matching funds for fundraising efforts or provide small grants to commuinty groups.
Decide how and when you will conduct fundraising activities. Are all members expected to participate in fundrasing? Will you form a fundraising committee? Answering these questions now will provide you with a clear vision of how funds will be raised and who will be responsible for overseeing those efforts.
Obtain any applications for grants and other available funding and set a time frame for applying. Determine if your group should apply for nonprofit status and request the necessary forms from your state.
Create a schedule for the first few meetings and reserve a meeting place that is accessible for all members. Future meetings should be scheduled to meet the needs of groups members, but for now planning initial meetings is vital.
Announce the formation of your group in newspapers or ask to be included in newsletters from closely related groups. Contact local television or radio stations to include your group announcements in their community service announcements. Place announcements on bulletin boards or in offices where your prospective members are likely to visit. Notify local schools of your group; althougth they cannot provide you with the names of parents who may be interested, they are ususally more than happy to pass on your information to other parents.