September-October 2005 Selected Content
Ask Carol - Carol Narigon
Starting a Support Group
A few other moms and I want to start a homeschool group. What are some of the most important issues when starting a group? Are there any specific things that are most helpful or imperative to make one work? Thanks so much. - Katie
Katie, I can tell you about my experience with starting a group 12 years ago and maintaining it until now. I believe our initial success rested on one practice: one member of our small group of maybe five or six families insisted we meet every week on the same day of the week. She said we'd never stay together and become a homeschool group if we didn't make that commitment. And then she opened her house to us over and over again. As we grew to depend on that weekly contact, we found other ways to meet and started setting up more field trips, more activities, and shared the hosting more often. Her insistence on simply making a weekly commitment was the backbone of our group for the first couple of years, though.
Eventually others started finding us and we had to expand our horizons. We shared the burden of holding meetings in additional homes. We met one winter at an indoor playground where we got special rates. We found space in a local Unitarian Universalist church for some activities and paid by donation.
Within a couple of years, we had been together long enough to have a history and annual events that the kids (and moms) looked forward to. More people joined us. We chose a name that reflected our city's heritage as well as our group's structure: Wright Independent Learning Cooperative (WILC).
I have to say we were somewhat picky, though. Many people found me online and joined the group that way. Others came up through La Leche League. I was specific in describing our group and what we would expect from people who joined us. We are a cooperative. We don't provide a service or offer a program like the public schools. Families are required to provide or sponsor at least one activity each year for the group. We aren't religious. While we meet at a church sometimes, we meet for homeschool support, not for religion, and our group isn't sponsored by the church. Sure, we talk about our individual religions as friends, but we don't tolerate proselytizing within the group. We don't all homeschool the same, but most of us are pretty relaxed. To join our e-mail list, a family must attend at least one activity, and they will be taken off the e-mail list if not seen in six months or a year; we aren't just an e-mail list. Anyone who is looking for the kind of group I just described is more than welcome to join us in our activities.
As we got bigger and started to experience behavior issues, fewer people would invite the group into their homes. We started using the church more, and we had to make a list of rules for the kids so that all the parents could be on the same page. Sometimes the moms were more interested in talking together than watching what their kids were doing. Some moms had different expectations and didn't mind if their kids were racing through the halls of the church. One family made a poster with the rules, and we began starting formal activities with a circle where we explained the rules for behavior.
Early on we realized we needed time to plan our activities, so we started holding planning meetings one Saturday a month just for moms (and babies-in-arms) that are 80 percent socializing and 20 percent planning. It doesn't work to plan with lots of kids around. We've met in people's homes, the Bagel Cafe, or the church.
Once a year, usually at the end of August or early in September, we hold our Big Planning Meeting to plan our calendar for the year. For a while it worked to plan month by month, but some activities require more planning and we found the same people were volunteering every month to do all the work. If you're mainly going to meet for socialization, you may not need to plan so far ahead, but the annual meeting has really helped us maintain a solid weekly (or more) schedule. We also found members were more likely to volunteer if they had more lead time before their activity.
Another issue we've tried to deal with, but haven't perfectly addressed, is age differences. For some activities, we've split up the younger and older kids and offered similar, but age-appropriate, activities for each. This can be a problem, though, for a mom who has kids in both groups. Often a mom will ask another mom to oversee her older child while she stays with the younger one.
When the age issue became a problem, we formalized a rule that had always been a practice. Whoever sets up the activity makes the rules and decisions for that activity, and is responsible for setting up and cleaning up. If it's for kids ages eight and up, then that's the way it goes. Someone else can always set up something else for younger kids. Activities with age limits can be difficult for families with kids in various age groups, but families have to figure out a way to make it work. As we've always said, every activity doesn't fit every family. Sometimes what's going on won't fit your family and you can take a week off or see if others who are in the same boat want to get together.
We (finally) sponsored a spin-off group for younger homeschoolers and that helped. We had calls from people with babies and toddlers who were looking for a group. I was even contacted by a newly-pregnant woman who wanted to join. Although we'd like to welcome every family who wants to be with us, we encountered problems when our toddler and preschooler ratio exceeded a comfortable limit. We ended up holding too many activities that only served the youngest members and left out the kids older than eight or so, even if the activity would have been fine for older kids if the younger kids weren't there. It's hard to conduct activities with older kids when there are lots of younger kids running around making noise, crying, dancing, and talking. Age difference is always going to be an issue, but still we try to work on it. If a family has all younger children, it's especially suited to the younger homeschoolers group, and it can move up to WILC when the kids are older.
We also have a teen group with a separate e-mail list and activities, although they still come to the regular activities. Usually the teens just get together and hang out, but they've performed community service and even taken some classes at the local community college together.
We now have a Web site that lists all of our activities for the year. We have some annual events - science fair and other fairs (history, art, sharing), a Christmas party, a moms' Christmas cookie and gift exchange separate from the big one, Back-to-School- and-Out-of-School-Not potlucks in spring and fall at a big park with a shelter. We've had book clubs and a science club and moms' nights out. We do whatever somebody wants to plan that others want to come to.
We're lucky that a small core of original and older members still exists in the group. Although we are definitely a cooperative run by the members, we also have what I would call a form of benign leadership; moms who are willing to speak out about problems, remind us of our own rules, and lead the group in making decisions. I would strongly discourage any group from relying on one person for leadership. To do so is to invite burn-out and contention.
Speaking of contention, yes, we have had times of uncomfortable discord. Usually the issue is brought up on the e-mail list and when we find it's too big to resolve through e-mail and the debate becomes too heated, we meet face-to-face and hammer out some solutions. When leadership of the group belongs to the members, everybody has a stake in working things out.
Of course your group won't look like my group. It will take on its own personality and create its own history. WILC has never been static, as you can see from our evolution. Each year is different and we adjust to those differences and continue supporting and encouraging each other on our homeschool journey. Good luck!
For more information and help in getting your group going see Group News Highlights on page of this issue. Also see: http://www.homeedmag.com/wlcm_groups.html
© 2005, Carol Narigon