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Chris Walsh Center uses grant to host support groups for caregivers

By Adam Levine

Editorial Staff


The Chris Walsh Center for Educators and Families begins its second support group - Better Together: Supporting and Informing Caregivers of Neurodivergent Children - for caregivers of neurodivergent children March 7.


This is the second support group funded by an $18,500 grant from the Sudbury Foundation, according to the University’s website.


Deborah McMakin, professor of psychology and philosophy and program coordinator of the counseling psychology master’s program, said she is the facilitator of the support group this semester and was the co-facilitator with Jessica Ames, a clinical social worker, during the support group in the fall - Building Resiliency: A Group for Caregivers of Neurodivergent Children.


McMakin said these two support groups are geared toward caregivers of neurodivergent children and usually have five to 10 participants each session but are open to up to 20.


She said, “Because the group is voluntary, we don't require people to share a lot about themselves, but they just have to self-identify as a caregiver for a neurodivergent child.”


McMakin said many of the caregivers are parents and the children they care for may be a wide range of ages.


“That became really helpful because when people in a group start talking to each other and sharing their experiences, that's really where the power of the group goes - where everyone can be a teacher and a learner in the group,” she said.


McMakin said she researched topics for the group’s curriculum, such as how to teach caregivers to support the children they care for to engage in “advocacy, communication, [and] self-compassion.”


She said she hopes “we're building these social connections that hopefully will go beyond just the spring” and that the support groups can continue to be funded through the Center.


McMakin said she wants caregivers to know the support group is “a space for them to come and all they need to do is show up and be present” and “to be acknowledged - to be validated.”


Emily Farnhill, a graduate assistant at the Chris Walsh Center who is currently pursuing her master of arts degree in counseling psychology, said the grant from the Sudbury Foundation funds her position at the Center.


Farnhill said she helps facilitate the webinars and support groups while also running the social media accounts for the Center.

She said she began her position in September 2023, so she did not participate in the grant-application process, but she is involved “from conception all the way through getting people onto the call” for the support group.


Farnhill said she and fellow graduate assistant Natalie McCollam work with Therese Atjum-Roberts, coordinator of the Chris Walsh Center for Educators and Families of MetroWest, and McMakin to create promotional material and reach out to possible participants before group sessions and then during the call, they make sure it’s a “safe space for everyone that’s there - really listening to them [and] making sure we cover all the topics that the caregivers need coverage on.”


She said after the support group in the fall, “it was just great to hear parents come together and say that they've never participated in something like this before and that they were looking forward to the next one.”


Farnhill said many of the participants “felt like they got new knowledge out of it. They got a sense of connection and shared experiences with other parents, so that made them feel heard and that they're not alone.


“I would say those are pretty big success markers for us,” she added.


Farnhill said in her studies for her master’s degree, the work for the support groups is invaluable.


She said, “This really exposes me to gain experience in consultations - just seeing what the need is out there.


“It's really giving me a full picture of what parents need [and] how these students operate,” added Farnhill.


McCollam, the second of the two graduate assistants at the Chris Walsh Center, said she is in her second year of her master of arts program in counseling psychology and has worked at the Center since Fall 2023.


She said she is mostly responsible for the Center’s community outreach and newsletters, supporting the expert speakers the Center brings in for the community, and managing the Center’s team of undergraduate interns.


McCollam said in the fall, she helped the support group by providing resources for McMakin, Ames, and the participants. She also helped promote the group to the community.


She said, “This was the first support group I’ve been involved in and it was incredible to see. Starting out, I was unsure. People didn’t open up immediately and I was asking myself, ‘Is this going to work?’ However, by the end, I witnessed the power of community support. The caregivers in our group were wonderful people who needed to be heard.


“This group allowed them to come together with people who were facing many of the same challenges they were and find a sense of comradery.


“From what I could see, everyone was supported and had support to offer others,” added McCollam.


She said they added additional questions to the registration form for the caregivers to “allow us to begin the group with a greater understanding of what the group participants need.


“By incorporating these questions early on, we will be able to plan for them and provide more tailored support from the beginning while still adapting as new information comes to the surface,” added McCollam.


McCollam said, “As a future licensed mental health counselor, I will be running groups as part of my career.


“I have no doubt I’ll be using the knowledge I’ve gained through this experience very soon,” she added.


“Overall, being a part of the caregiver support group has been an incredible experience for me. I hope it feels just as valuable to everyone who participates in the groups we offer,” said McCollam.


James Cressey, chair of the education department and faculty liaison at the Chris Walsh Center, said the Center mostly relies on grants to fund its work, including the support groups and the interns they pay, but all have been internal grants from the University.


Cressey said this is the first large, external grant the Center has received since it opened in 2020.


He said the Center was awarded the grant June 21, 2023, but the process to apply for it began in 2022.


Cressey said the Center submitted a concept paper to apply for a similar grant from the MetroWest Health Foundation but did not receive it.


He said a concept paper is a short version of the grant proposal. “It's almost like a proposal before the proposal. It's more just about the concepts, the idea, for the grant.”


Cressey said if the organization awarding the grant approves the concept paper, they are invited to submit a full proposal.


He said the concept paper was resubmitted to the Sudbury Foundation during the fall of 2022 and the Center submitted the full proposal in March of 2023.


Cressey said he helped with the design of the proposal but has not been involved with the support group since.


He said, “One of the outcomes that was proposed is that parents and caregivers of children with disabilities would report increased emotional wellbeing after the six-week session and then again, after 90 days later … that would be measured through survey questionnaire methodology.”


Cressy said, “The goal is at the end of those six weeks, we haven't fixed everyone's problems - it's not like you're curing a problem - but you're more helping the families to build their resilience and their emotional well-being so that they can continue to face the challenges that their family is going to continue to face.


“Some of the other goals were about increasing knowledge … and where to find that information,” he added.


“The grant and the mission of the Center are aligned with the University's strategic plan and the University's goals around community engagement. We're ensuring that we help the University keep a strong reputation in the community as a provider of public service because that's really important to the University as a whole,” Cressey said.


Atjum-Roberts said, “These support groups are particularly targeted to meet parents who have children who are neurodivergent.”


She added, “Parents need support and it's hard to be a parent. … I can speak for myself. I'm a parent to a neurodivergent child who has both ADHD and dyslexia.


“And it can be lonely, so having parents have a place that they can come in, they can talk and they can share and they can ask questions, but not feel like they're being judged, is a great service that the Chris Walsh Center can offer, and the Sudbury grant is making this possible,” she added.


Atjum-Roberts said, “We hope to be able to continue to offer these parent support groups in future years.”


Alana Gardner, a senior psychology major, said she is currently an undergraduate intern at the Chris Walsh Center.


Gardner said the Center is continuing to host more support groups and webinar series in the future.


She said these support groups are “a great way for both educators and families to get information that they may need to help support their children.


“There's a great lack of support in the education systems alone and a lot of families don't have the support and resources that they should have. So I think it's a great way to get more support resources to families,” added Gardner.


Through her work as an intern at the Center, Gardner said, “I hope to learn what role I can play myself in offering support to parents and families, because I did come from a background where I had unmet needs, so I want to do anything I can to help people in the future.”

SGA President Evelyn Campbell, a junior communication, media, and performance major, said she has not used the resources provided by the Chris Walsh Center but “it’s amazing that we are a part of helping our community members.

“It’s important that if we preach about inclusion, diversity and equity that we have actual resources and support for families.

“The community has a chance to get access to resources that are needed. There are many articles, guest speakers, panels, and events in order to make sure everyone has the opportunity to be included, supported and heard,” she added.

Student Trustee Ryan Mikelis, a senior political science major, said he has not used the resources provided by the Chris Walsh Center but “it’s always great to see FSU catering to all types of students and community members, no matter their backgrounds. It only helps to further our accepting role in the greater Framingham community.

“Inclusive efforts are at the forefront of FSU’s mission. By funding projects like these, FSU is creating a community that is open and accepting to all. We have resources that all students can utilize, regardless of race, gender, or background,” he added.


LaDonna Bridges, associate dean of academic success and director of the Center for Academic Success and Achievement, said she is a member-at-large on the Center’s board of directors and has been involved with the Center since before it opened.


Bridges said much of the discussion of what the Center would be “centered around equity and inclusivity.


“The idea was that you would provide a lot of information to a lot more people through a center like this,” she added.


Bridges said offering a support group for caregivers is “such a natural outgrowth of where the whole thing started conceptually - the whole idea for this kind of a center.

“It’s amazing to see it come to fruition,” she added.


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