By Kelly Youngblood
Meredith Barnes, a Champaign mom to a child with special needs, knows where to go if she needs a recommendation for the most patient hair stylist in town or the most accommodating dentist in the area. She also knows where to turn if she just needs to vent her frustrations.
Thanks to the Larkin’s Place Parent Network and a Facebook page she started called CU Able, this Champaign mom has an outlet where she can share stories and resources with other parents who can relate to what she’s going through.
That support has made a big difference in her life and many other families who are on a similar journey, which is why Barnes wants to encourage any families with children who have special needs who are looking for a support system to check out CU Able and the meetings at the YMCA.
“There’s a big group of us that are so supportive and can answer questions,” Barnes said. “I feel like as a newly diagnosed parent of a kid with special needs, it’s so overwhelming. There are so many resources in Champaign-Urbana but if you don’t know about them they aren’t helpful.”
Barnes, whose two year old daughter has spina bifida, started attending the Larkin’s Place Parent Network at the Stephens’ Family YMCA last year. The group, which provides discussion about various topics relating to children with special needs, is currently meeting for one hour on the second Thursday of the month. A moderator leads the meeting and child care is provided.
Barnes said she decided to start the CU Able Facebook page last August as another way to help parents navigate the challenges and struggles that go along with having a child with special needs.
Barnes says the goal of CU Able is to make life a little easier for families. “Like all families our lives can be hectic and adding additional challenges, it seems like anything that can make life easier and help our kids is definitely the first priority.”
Supporting the parents themselves is also at the top of the list Barnes said. “It can be draining. It’s nice to know you’re not alone.”
Cari Vanderpool is a mom who is grateful for the support this network has given her.
“We’ve met some amazing parents through CU Able and the Larkin’s Place Parent Group. The support and exchange of ideas and strategies has been a life line for us. We’re all dealing with some different kinds of challenges, but we’re all united in the fact that we love our kiddos and see all the potential in the world in them, as well as seeing how strong and amazing they are right now,” Vanderpool said.
Another member, Michelle Mongkolsmai, says the group gives families “a feeling of normalcy in our chaotic lives.”
“In our network, we don’t have to explain ourselves, put on a brave face, or justify our feelings because we all understand. This combined with the resources we can provide to one another to better care for our children has made this group- in only three short months- invaluable to me,” Mongkolsmai said.
In addition to sharing information on the Facebook page, which currently has over 90 members, the group has started organizing social outings such as dinners and painting parties for the moms as well.
“We’re trying to start that (social piece) because you definitely lose a lot of your social life when you have a kid with special needs,” Barnes said.
Even if you don’t feel that you are ready for an outing or a meeting, Barnes suggests joining the Facebook page where you can participate as much or as little as you want but still get the information and resources you need.
The CU Able Facebook page is a closed group but families with a child with special needs are welcome to join it. For more information about CU Able contact Meredith Barnes at firstname.lastname@example.org.