As a kid growing up with a younger brother who has a developmental disability, I would have benefited tremendously from a supportive group of peers who could relate to the challenges I experienced.

They would have known all about the stares you and your family can get in public, and the sometimes rude, hurtful comments from strangers. They also would have shared those same emotions that I thought were uniquely my own struggle.

In other words, during those formative years I would have loved to have an outlet like Sibshops.

For the past six years, sponsored by River Forest Township in partnership with Thrive Counseling Center, Sibshops has been a sanctuary for siblings of children with special needs. Those needs might be physical and developmental disabilities. In other instances, emotional and mental health challenges are in the mix.

Over the years, wearing both my sibling and facilitator hats at Sibshops, it has been extremely gratifying to see girls and boys break free from their day-to-day routine, let down their guard, and be their authentic self. There is a comfort that comes from being around others who are on a similar journey, going through some of the same ups and downs. It’s about understanding what others are going through, and knowing that they understand you, too.

Thanks to the expert guidance of facilitators Laurie Johnson and Javier Sanchez, Sibshops’ activities create a relaxed, fun atmosphere to address some heavy issues. What comes out of it: laughter, reflection, heightened self-awareness, strategies to relate better to your special-needs sibling, and a deeper awareness of the important roles these siblings have in their family dynamics.

The gatherings are safe, confidential, and transformative. Each time, it has been a joy for me to see these youths, grades 1 through 7, walk away with a lighter load than they came with. The same goes for me, too.

Unfortunately, like the rest of the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has made things tough for Sibshops. The program pivoted to Zoom gatherings, but it’s not the same as meeting in person.

Now that in-person Sibshops is starting back up on Saturday, Sept. 18, excitement is growing among the families who have already experienced its positive impact. And there’s room for more families, too. The fee is $10, lunch provided, with need-based scholarships available.

Sibshops is well worth checking out. To all families who have siblings of special-needs children, I promise you will be glad you did.

Registration for Sibshops is required in advance. For more information or to register, please contact Laurie Johnson at 708-383-7500, x308, or ljohnson@thrivecc.org.

Mike Carmody is executive director of Opportunity Knocks, a nonprofit that supports people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

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