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Starting a parent support group, some insights. - Guest Column by Gopi Ramakrishnan, Co-founder, SCAN

Starting a parent support group comes with many challenges. But it's worth it especially when you have a child with a disability. In our guest column, Gopinath Ramakrishnan, Co-founder of Special Child Assistance Network, a Chennai-based support group, shares some insights.

Start with baby steps. Some groups start with very ambitious plans and sometimes it's difficult to figure out how to get everything done and that leads to anxiety, differences of opinion, etc.

When we first had the vague idea of starting what eventually became Special Child Assistance Network (SCAN), we decided to start with a get-together, just to get a lot of special needs families in the same space so that we could start sharing ideas. We then came up with plenty of ideas, but were able to actually implement only a couple of them. Even a year later I found that many of our initial ideas are still only on paper! But we had done a bunch of other things by then… just taking one step at a time!

Find one activity to kickstart the group with. Much before we started SCAN, a few of us had started Family Yoga for Special Needs - parents and children together, once a week. This started a bonding process, both for the parents and the children. So, when we had our first SCAN event, we had something to talk about and an activity for others to join in. It doesn't have to be yoga - it could be getting kids together for play-time in the park, or a painting session, or to dance. Make it a regular activity, stick to a schedule, and you find more people joining in. This automatically leads to more activities as other parents start coming up with stuff to do.

Leverage technology. Social media is so useful and convenient. Without WhatsApp and Facebook we just wouldn't have gathered momentum. Create a buzz on social media and make it inclusive - all our groups are open for any member to add others. Generate discussion and don't police it too much, that's the only way people open up and share their views.

Find or create a space to meet. We were extremely lucky that, a few months after we started SCAN, one of the members Vimal Balchander came up with the idea of starting Mitr as a space for special needs families to meet. Initially it was just a place to hang out. Then different folks came up with interesting activities - art classes, games, the café - each of these helped to create interest in the group, bring in new members and give everyone a feeling that this was a happening place!

Plan activities that folks can't do alone. Very soon after we started SCAN, we planned a movie outing. Many of our families hadn't been to the movies in years, as their kids were uncomfortable with the noise levels or found the darkness unnerving. We organized a show at a private preview theatre, and ran a film with the volume set at a much lower level and some lights on through the show. People loved it! This generated so much awareness and appeal. We realized that if the group arranged activities that can't be done by any family by themselves, or things that are more fun in a group, there's an automatic clamour for more! And nothing invigorates us more than that!

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