Support available for siblings of children with special needs

Sibshops offering Zoom support starting this fall

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By Maria Maxham

Staff Reporter

COVID-19 may have forced Sibshops to change the way it delivers support, but after piloting Zoom-based groups this summer, the organization is launching fall programming.

Sibshops are peer-support groups for children with siblings affected by health issues, including developmental and mental health challenges. These groups are part of the Sibling Support Project, a national program founded in 1990 to address the concerns of siblings of people with special health, developmental and mental health concerns.

In Sibshops groups, children have an opportunity to talk to other kids, learning from and supporting each other.

Locally, River Forest Township, in partnership with Thrive Counseling Center, funds and sponsors Sibshops. The Oak Park and River Forest group, established in 2015, has served more than 50 first through seventh graders who have siblings with disabilities, physical illness or emotional and mental health challenges.

The mother of a 9-year-old participant said that with COVID keeping the entire family at home, the summer pilot sessions of Sibshops were an opportunity for her daughter to have a chance to interact with other kids, albeit on Zoom instead of in-person.

"It's tough to have a sibling with special needs, and this has become her space," said the mother. "She really needs it because she is such a social person."

Laurie Johnson, a Thrive therapist and Sibshops facilitator, said holding meetings on Zoom obviously eliminates some in-person aspects of the program, such as tag or making lunches together. Still, she said the switch to remote meetings has added some elements to the groups as well.

"The kids get to see each other in their homes or wherever they are. We had someone who was at their vacation cabin," said Johnson. "That has enabled us to incorporate things like favorite items that they show and talk about. The kids have also been creative and adaptive about finding private space to be within their homes, such as a fort made from blankets."

Mike Carmody, executive director of Opportunity Knocks, is one of the Sibshops facilitators, and he said it's great to see the children open up, knowing it's a safe place for them to do so.

"What we say, stays in here," said Carmody, stressing the importance of confidentiality.

Sibshops launched its fall program on Sept. 19, and upcoming dates are Oct. 3 and 17; Nov. 7 and 21; and Dec. 8 and 19. All sessions run from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and are open to children from 1st through 7th grade. The fee is $5 and need-based scholarships are available.

Space is limited with preference given to Oak Park and River Forest residents, but families from other communities are welcome to participate based on availability.

Advance registration is required. Contact or call Laurie Johnson at 708-383-7500 ext. 409.

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