What happens when two passionate mums get together – Deb & Chantal’s Meet & Share groups
Both Chantal and I have children on the spectrum. Chantal received a diagnosis of ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) as an adult and I have always felt 'different' so we knew we could potentially help others, as well as ourselves, on our Autism life journeys.
We were well aware of the need for more support for ourselves and other Autism families in the Coffs Harbour area so we decided to start the Meet & Share groups.
Meet & Share Meetings are a gathering of big and little people who are diagnosed, not diagnosed, all ages, family, friends & professionals in an inclusive, non-judgmental and safe place to share a common passion - all things Autism and Aspergers related.
Throughout the year of meetings in Coffs, families travelled long distances (up to 4 hours round trips) to attend the meetings. In the second half of the year a fellow attendee (Michelle-a beautiful Mum & wife & dear friend) and I decided to establish a second Meet & Share Group closer to where we lived and for others who could not travel so far, hence Meet & Share South West Rocks was established.
We were so excited (and I was a little overwhelmed) by how many families attended our first meeting and continue to attend, 6 months later!! I will never forget my nerves about no one turning up so I invited a friend (along with her two very old dogs) just to support me. I knew her dogs were quiet and old so they would not scare anyone and stay in the background - if anyone turned up that is. Well, my friend came and what I didn't realise was that one of her dogs made very loud and consistent breathing, gagging, snorting noises! And that wasn't all, he had lots and lots of wind which was very loud!! I was very relieved when the lovely attendees found this funny and really liked the noisy dog in particular! Albie the Wonder Dog became our group mascot. Albie was a real ice breaker and turned into a real heart breaker - that's a story for another day.
We have all ages attend. We try to cater for everyone. Our kids are welcome and wanted at most Meets, however we do have some workshops, presentations & events that are more suited to an older audience.
We have once monthly formal Meet & Shares with guest speakers and we also bring our favourite resource to share. Just like 'Show & Tell'. It could be a book, DVD, body sock, chews, fidgets and so on. I have a love of DIY and alternative resources-we have some very clever and ingenious members! If we are lucky enough to have one of our kids attend I encourage them to share their favourite resource with us if they want too. This helps our kids gain confidence and a feeling of belonging in a supportive and loving environment. Show & Tell has so many benefits for everyone.
I try to keep our group vibe positive, enabling, encouraging and accepting. It is important in my role as facilitator to create a safe place for sharing. I find by following a flexible agenda and creating a group agreement really enables our meetings to flow and stay interesting. One of the items on our group agreement that comes up at every meeting is confidentiality. What is shared in our group that is of personal nature stays in our group. I place a lot of emphasis on the mental health of our members and like to ensure that everyone can come and see me or another member if they are feeling upset due to a topic that was covered in our meeting. This is a strength of mine I believe because I have lived experiences of mental health, not just personally but with family, friends and colleagues.
Most of our meetings are joyful however at one of our meetings we had a member particularly upset. Once the meeting was finished, those that could decided to have an informal lunch. As it turned out this member shared some issues and I was so happy (and proud of her bravery) that she felt safe and in a supportive environment to share. The other members of the group were amazing with their lack of judgement and were full of love and concerns! As a group we shared our ears and opened our hearts. As the facilitator I ensured supports were set up and followed through with.
We have twice monthly outings - gentle nature walks (mainly on the beach!) We live in a beautiful area and by taking the time to relax and breath in nature we are looking after our physical and mental health while building up friendships and supports in our local community. Getting out and looking after my physical and mental health is something that I struggle with and have found that a lot of our families do too. On one of our walks there was just 3 of us. I felt so relaxed and calm. You know that precious feeling of being with people who you don't necessarily know very well, or spend a lot of time with but you all have an unspoken, no need to explain, kind of understanding where you can completely be yourself and not talk or talk - basically just being totally accepted, supported and enjoyed for exactly who you and your family are.
We also have special events like yoga and meditation. I am hoping to start some movie events soon, a book club and some art exhibitions - just to mention a few ideas I have .... I would love to extend to a young teens group, a young adults group just to name a few, maybe one day.
I am very excited about the launch of the Carers NSW Mobile Craft Studio in December 2016 at South West Rocks for our group. We will now have a Carers NSW Craft Studio Event every month here with the launch of the same in February in Kempsey!!
Over time, I increased my group area to the Macleay Valley (South West Rocks and Kempsey) hence Meet & Share South West Rocks became Meet & Share Macleay Valley! There is even more interest and a lot of potential for a separate Meet & Share Kempsey Group and the third Meet & Share Bellingen group is in the process of being set up.
Our fourth group, Meet & Share Nambucca Valley is also being set up this month.
Right from the beginning I have had Chantal whose contributions were vital to the success of the group (and still are!!) We are both now mentors and large parts of the supports in place for new Meet & Share Groups. We are in the process of creating an ongoing Meet & Share Resource Kit (requested by and in collaboration with Coffs Coast Autism) however this Resource Kit will be relevant to areas outside Coffs.
The Meet & Share Resource kit has a guide to creating Meet & Share Groups in your area, facilitator responsibilities, supports & resources, tips and much more. In particular we place vital attention to creating local support circles around a facilitator before commencing any new group. From our experiences we believe it would be ideal to have at least two if not three facilitators per each individual Meet & Share Group. I guess my group is like a precious little baby to me and I can say that I have so much love for each and every member.
It would be a dream job if we could be employed setting up these Meet & Share groups state wide then maybe country wide!! We wouldn't have to worry about earning money which takes away so much time from our volunteer roles!
I always dream big! Dreams do come true, if you want them too and work for them!!
Our groups are all available to join on Facebook-
Meet & Share Coffs Harbour
Meet & Share Macleay Valley
Meet & Share Bellingen
Meet & Share Nambucca Valley
There is also interest in setting up another Meet & Share group in Taree.