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Powerful Relationships for Kids and Parents

Families for Community Program Provides Connections for Families and Children with Disabilities

Emilie Sampson and her son Parker
Emilie Sampson and her son Parker.

When Emilie Sampson's son Parker was diagnosed four years ago with autism, she wanted to find someone to speak with who truly understood what she was going through as a parent. She did not want to talk to a professional, but rather, she wanted to talk to a parent who knew the path she was on and could offer guidance through real-life experience.


"I had so much to ask," she said. "I wanted to know from another parent what to expect. I wanted to talk to someone who really knew what life was like."


Emilie lives in Medford with husband Matt and their three sons. She knew there were other parents out there; she just had to find them. Through this experience, she found that there was a real need in Jackson County for parents of children with disabilities to connect with one another.


But she couldn't do it alone.


She linked up with Child Development Services of Jackson County which provides early intervention and education services for children with developmental delays from birth to five years. She worked with their director, Sue Kline to write proposals and set up meetings with key community members. Jackson County Developmental Disability Services gave her office space and began connecting her with other parents. Finally, The ARC of Jackson County offered her to work under their umbrella as a non-profit, and local school districts, Easter Seals and other community organizations all linked together to support her goal of creating a family support network in Jackson County for families who have children with disabilities.


Today, the organization Emilie founded and is director of, Jackson County's Families for Community program, reaches out and provides parent connections, play groups, social opportunities, advocacy training and support for over 175 families, as well as guidance and information for many more.


"This has been an example of an entire community coming together to make something wonderful happen," explained Tony Mendenhall, Program Manager for Jackson County Developmental Disability Services. "We can connect people with services but we don't go through what the families go through on a daily basis. We don't live it. These parents and families live it and this support structure speaks directly to them."


Families for Communities (FFC) is run by families who have children who experience disabilities of all kinds. FFC offers different ways for families to find support, whether through social opportunities, support groups, one on one parent matching or training and workshops.


One of the parents involved in FFC is Heather Olivier of Medford. She and her husband Chris have two children. Their five year old son Noah was diagnosed a year and a half ago with autism. Heather, a teacher in the Medford School District, is now staying at home fulltime to help support Noah. "We felt so isolated when we received the diagnosis," she recalls. "Families for Community has been invaluable for us. I particularly have gained a great deal learning from other parents and from the advocacy trainings."


Parker Sampson, Noah Olivier, Brennan Sampson, Sawyer McPhail, Crew McPhail (back), and Thatcher McPhail
The Play Group: (From left) Parker Sampson, Noah Olivier, Brennan Sampson, Sawyer McPhail, Crew McPhail (back), and Thatcher McPhail

Last fall, Emilie, Heather, and one other mom started getting together on a regular basis for support and to let their kids play with one another. The result of this mini-play group has been tremendous for the children as well as the parents.


"At first the boys were excited to see each other, but would separate to play independently after a few minutes," Emilie said. "However, as time went on, they played for longer times before separating to take breaks. Because they grew to love and trust each other, they took risks, and all of their social skills skyrocketed."


"We saw those skills translate across different settings and with different friends, which is the real goal of what we do," said Emilie. "We don't want to exclude our kids to only play and spend time with other children who experience disabilities. We want our children to have access to friends...with and without disabilities. Finding a community of people who can help you work on those skills and help you feel confident finding your place included within our larger community is what it is really about."


The Department of Human Services (DHS) Office of Developmental Disability Services (ODDS) has provided funding to local counties that pass the funding on to family support networks such as Families for Community in Jackson County.


Bruce Baker, Manager of Children's Disability Services at DHS says that as family support funding for individual families shrinks, family support networks across Oregon are very effective ways to maximize funding.


"The State's intent is to maximize dollars in every community," Baker said. Family to family support networks have the greatest impact on the most people."


There are active family support groups in Lane, Deschutes, Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas Counties as well.


"Aside from the support and friendship, we learn so much from each other," Heather said. "Realizing there are so many of us in the same boat, we don't have to do this alone."


For more information on Families for Community in Jackson County, go to www.familiesforcommunity.org.