When Twin Creeks Middle School parent Sonaida Lara was told by her son's counselor that the campus was starting a new Special Education Parent Support Group, it didn't take Lara long to decide whether or not to attend last month's first official meeting.
"I didn't know what to expect," Lara said. "I just told my husband, 'We're going.'"
Plans for the group began over the summer in a series of conversations between administrators and teachers, including Twin Creeks special education teacher Latrina Montgomery, who oversees the school's Structured Integrated Learning Classroom (SILC) for students with autism. From the beginning, the goal was to provide a judgement-free space where parents could share openly about the joys and challenges they face in raising students with a range of special needs.
Lara said the first meeting was a revelation for her and her husband. "There were all these parents there, telling their stories, and that's what I needed," she said, "to know if I was the only one out there that was going through what I was going through."
By bringing parents together to share their experiences, Montgomery said the group would help address isolation and burnout.
"They need to know that there are other people in the same situation with them that feel the exact same way they do," Montgomery said, "that have the same emotions that they do, the same frustrations, the anger, the loneliness, the anxiety, the fear."
As the mother of a child with special needs herself, Montgomery knows where her students' parents are coming from, and how much the ongoing support can mean to them.
"I've been teaching for almost 14 years, I've been the mother of a special needs child for almost 27 years, and I'm still learning," Montgomery said. "There's still things that I don't know. It's a lifelong process for a parent of a special needs child. We're always learning."
Some parents joining the group are looking for resources to help them navigate the often-complicated network of services available to help their students be successful - both while they are in school and afterwards. Others are excited for a chance to advocate for the needs of their children. For some, just coming together and sharing with others who understand what they're going through might be the biggest draw.
"It's not easy being a parent, period, and it's especially challenging being a parent of a special needs child," said Lift 6 Parent Engagement Coordinator Dr. Christian Winn, who said the district would be considering ways to help establish parent support groups on other campuses as well. "I've heard parents express this feeling of being on an island, or being alone, and not having anyone who understands. And so the parent support group is an opportunity for them to come together and develop this sense of community with other parents in similar situations."
Montgomery said the new group's formation would not have been possible without the support of Twin Creeks Principal Kenisha Williams and other administrators and faculty members. Williams, for her part, said that the parent support group was a natural extension of the school's mission to the community.
"We strive hard at Twin Creeks to make sure that our parents and our students all feel like part of the community," Williams said, "We're always looking for ways to increase parental involvement on the campus, and this special education parent support group is a part of that vision. We're excited to see it develop and grow."
The group's next meeting is currently scheduled for 5:30 to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 28, and will include a presentation on transition services to help parents as they consider summer program opportunities for their children and think about high school and postsecondary planning. Parents are invited to contact the campus for more information.