Creating Your Own Support Group
MASH Conference 2015 – Jennifer Gehman
A Personal History of Support
The Mentoring Years and the Come and Go Years
I decided to start homeschooling in 1998. My second daughter was 10 days old and my oldest was just two when I attended my first homeschool conference. And although I knew I would homeschool them, in those beginning years, I didn’t seek out specifical homeschool support. I merely participated in the everyday preschool life of my community – a local stay and play, local lessons for preschoolers, the preschool skate at the nearby arena, and nearby stay-at-home moms in my community.
I did, however, meet one woman in my neighbourhood who was homeschooling her six year old daughter, and we would get together at her house every few weeks to just hang out. We maintained that pattern for about four years. Those visits were probably the most influential of both my parenting life and my homeschooling life.
Do not underestimate the power of a good relationship with even one individual who is willing to mentor and share their life with you.
By the time I was ready to start “officially” homeschooling, my friend had moved to Steinbach and I was ready to start meeting other homeschoolers. Except there didn’t seem to be many out in my neck of the woods. I joined a six-week long How-to-Homeschool course and met a few other moms, but they were dispersed around the city and it was hard to connect regularly. I would meet them occasionally at fields trips and picnics and it made me feel a small part of the greater community, but I still didn’t feel like I had anyone to share my new and odd educational journey with. And so I gave my name to the local homeschool group and told them that if anyone called asking for other homeschoolers in the St. James-Charleswood area, they could call me.
For two years I had a steady parade of homeschoolers come through my home. We would meet at a park, at my house, or at their house. Because I lived near the military base, many of the families I met were only around for a year or two and then were transferred elsewhere.
The Gym and Art years
Eventually I met enough people that when one impassioned mother decided to form a formal group, I was invited to the planning evening. And my first formal group was born.
In the beginning we recognized that meeting together as homeschooling mothers was even more important that meeting together with our children. So we had a monthly moms’ night. Our evening included food and wine, and a monthly topic led by the host. We might have a book club, a night for sharing curriculum, an evening of watching a video – whatever the host desired.
We also started a monthly child event. We met at a local church and the afternoon included one hour of games, led by a pair of mothers and one hour of crafts, led by another pair. Other moms were responsible for snack, clean-up and general supervision. We rotated leadership each month.
We started with about 8 families who all had children 10 and under. As our children grew we began to feel the need to meet biweekly and began offering more formal activities. We hired a gym student from U of M to lead the first hour of physical activities and we began offering more formal art programming – we did scrapbooking, painting, sewing, etc. The art projects were led by mothers or friends.
As the group continued to grow and add new people (at one point there were 20 families involved), we felt the need to formalize and create a mission statement, a code of conduct and a formal registration process with a yearly registration. Near the end of my time with this group, we formed an evening gymtime and a drama group in addition to the other activities. The gymtime was organized by some sports-minded Dads and included lessons on playing team sports such as basketball, volleyball, and rugby. It was held in a local school gym.
As in all things though, after five years, my time with this group came to an end and I found myself without any formal support group and young teens eager to connect once again with like-minded homeschoolers.
Games Day – Versions 1 and 2
I began the process of reaching out the same way I had in the very beginning. I spent time meeting with people who were also looking for support. Finally I met another mom of young teens who was hosting a casual games afternoon out of her home. Once a week we all headed to her home with snacks and activities and spent time just hanging out.
That group ended the following year as the host’s children decided to try formal high school, but one of the other moms continued it on, adding in a regular monthly meeting at the local city park and playground for outside play. The host of this new games groups had a daughter who also decided to attend formal high school and that left my two oldest girls feeling a little lonely. However over the last two years of meeting informalling with a few families, we had met a wide variety of homeschooling teens and my oldest teen received an invitation to a regular teen night.
These teens met seasonally for a movie and games night. It was completely teen-directed, and I actually didn’t know any of the other parents when my daughter started attending! Through those connections my daughter, who was studying to be an actor at the time, met with a number of teens who were involved with the Such Stuff Players and their offshoot, the Knavish Hedgehogs. My daughter successfully auditioned with the Knavish Hedgehogs and the following year our family was asked if we would be interested in joining the Winnipeg
Learning Center and its drama group, the Such Stuff Players.
The Learning Centre Years
The Learning Center had started with a handful of moms meeting in each others’ homes to play chess with their children. Eventually that morphed into a games day and then crafts were added. They outgrew the ability to meet in people’s home and found a local church to host meetings. In the new space, moms began to offer more diverse programming as their children voiced interests and a book club was started, a science club, a knitting group and all myriad of creative investigation.
Eventually a few children shared a deep desire to act and the Such Stuff Players was born. They did their first play, the Tempest at the Gas Station Theatre in 2009 and a modified version of Twelfth Night the following year. In 2011 they did a full, although abridged version, of Comedy and Errors and have continued to offer original text Shakespearean plays since.
The production of the play monopolizes almost four months of the year, requiring full-time weekday participation for the last three weeks before performance. It is time and labour-intensive, but the group has worked hard to create a community that is flexible in its firm commitment and full of grace and understanding.
My children and I continue to find both homeschool support and educational opportunities with this group. And we look forward to more years with them. Yet I am always aware that things grow and change and I know that one day in the future I may need to look for new support once again.
Finding Your Own Support
So if you find yourself desiring some support, the first step may be figuring out what you actually need.
I will tell you that in the early years, it was more important for me to meet with like-minded moms than it was for my children to meet with other homeschooling children. When they were preschool-aged, my children participated in the preschool activities that my neighbourhood offered. It wasn’t until my oldest daughter’s friends started Grade 1 and were no longer at home during the day that I began to see the need for homeschool-specific activities.
One of my favourite groups at this time was actually for whole families. We met quarterly for a family potluck and evening activity (toboganning, skating, hiking, etc) which was a nice way to include the non-teaching parents (in our case, mostly dads.)
When you decide what kind of group you are interested in, the next step is to find people – although sometimes you can find people and then have a more formal group grow out of it.
This is probably the hardest step in creating a support group – finding like-minded people to share the journey.
Once you have an idea and some people to share it with, you may want to consider formalizing things. These steps can be done beforehand, or they can grow organically as the group grows and becomes more formal.
And of course, once you have a group, you need to figure out what you actually want to do with them. This may actually be the jumping off place for a group – you have a vision for creating a homeschool debating team and create a group to serve that purpose. Or it may come after you’ve been meeting informally for a while – a group of moms and kids who’ve been getting together for chess, decide to start a formal drama group!
Either way, it’s good to dream and be open. As my current group has grown into having more and more teens, we have allowed for them to take more and more of a role in the planning and implementation of the programming and play. This changes how the groups looks and operates.
Of course whenever people live and work together in community, there will be conflict, problems and pitfalls. It’s good to have a plan for dealing with them before they arise. One way to avoid them, is to have clear guidelines about expectations, especially when adding new families to existing groups. One of my support groups has hired mediators in the past to help it work out some communication issues it was having.
No matter how successful a group may seem, sometimes groups need to change, expand, shrink and even die. Every organism has a lifespan, and a support group isn’t any different. Some of my groups died a natural death, some of them were painful to leave and others just didn’t meet our needs. I am thankful for all of them and for all the amazing people I have had the opportunity to meet over the years, even if it was only for a visit or two.
My teens recently joined several other teens at the St James Library to brainstorm what a MASH teen group might look like! I know that even though we are involved in another active support group, support comes from many places and many people in many ways.
This is also one of the reasons I am still actively involved in the MASH advisory team – because an evening out with other homeschooling parents to figure out how to strengthen the community gives me support to get up the next morning and try to figure out how to do math with my non-mathy kids.
And because, for a season, sitting in the foyer at the homeschool Karate class chatting with the other parents sitting there was the only support I had, and it was wonderful!