I have two wonderful sons who struggle with different challenges. Over the years, I have experienced frustration and isolation. The one constant was my faith and my faith community. They helped us through many storms. The lack of guidance, services, and information that I faced as a mother lead me to think about starting a family group to support all families throughout their children’s lives.
As my boys were growing up, I never wanted to just settle for what was out there or being offered. I always thought there must be more! I was involved in their schools and spoke up around our frustration and personal challenges. During this time, I did not connect with other families, nor did I really hear about any family support groups, as these were not well publicized.
In the last couple of years as I was nearing my retirement, I built upon my idea of forming a group to support families and also to research information on better services and programs for family members in every area. I started connecting with parents through Special Olympics. I realized that most families did not have the time to even think about attending another group or to know what they really wanted in terms of information or support. Eventually, I connected with a couple of other parents who wanted to form a similar group. After doing some research, I found a model for us to follow and partnered with our local Community Living Association to obtain funding. I was assigned the role of parent liaison, as I had done a lot of research over the years and had a lot of information on how the system worked. Through this, we were able to host meetings and workshops and support quite a few families.
During this time, I also joined the HAND group and helped Amber Armstrong with housing ideas for involved members. This work continued for five years, and it reminded me just how little information or help is out there. I realized that other areas of Canada, US, and Europe, are so far ahead in many ways and that we can learn from others. It was a time of researching and connecting with a lot of different organizations. I learned that sharing information and support for each other are both key to building robust networks.
I also recognised that it very important to have a solid long-term plan. Without this, members can start to move in all different directions. This year, we applied for the Family Network funding. Unfortunately, we did not receive it. This was a reminder around the value of having a clear vision and short and long term goals.
Family networks have always continued on in the face of hard times and funding shortages. Family networks do not have to be large in numbers. In our area, it is a core group of parents, along with myself, who hold the same vision. We use social media to help connect people, along with other creative ways. For example, we offer a drop in centre at the CLB. This is a great opportunity for families to connect and for people to make new friends or simply have a place to chill. We hope to keep this going. We are also connected with Partners for Planning (P4P) and the ConnectABILITY site. This is another way to have really great information passed onto families and community members.
I must say I have met so many awesome people on this journey. I connect with family networks throughout Ontario, even up in Thunder Bay. They all offer great ideas and support. I came across the Ontario Independent Facilitation Network (OIFN) in my research and found it very interesting. Our family network invited a board member down to share information on Independent Facilitation. It went well and tapped into another way of looking at support and how to connect.
One of the most helpful things anyone can do when talking to families across the province is to really listen to their stories without judgement! Our family network welcomes families whose loved ones experience a wide range of disabilities. As we move forward, we hope to stay connected to OIFN and have families learn about other ways of support and connection to community.
Fran Stewart is a mom and the leader of the family network ‘Connected Families.’ She has spent years researching, collecting information, and supporting families in her region. She recently participated in OIFN’s Working Forum, sharing her perspective as a mother and leader of a family network.