By Susan Foster Cohen, Director of the Christchurch Early Intervention Trust and Champion Centre
Raising a child with Down syndrome can be a better experience for parents if they are able to share their experiences with other families going through a similar journey.
The Champion Centre’s model of early intervention has many essential elements that reflect best practice and one of them is the deliberate bringing together of parents with the hope that it will kick-start friendships and support networks between them.
By attending the Centre in small groups one morning a week during school terms, families not only receive individualised support for each of the children, but have frequent opportunities to meet and connect with other families/whānau whose children are at a similar age and stage.
Perhaps the most important moment in a Champion Centre morning from this perspective is the opportunity for conversation over a cuppa and a biscuit at morning tea.
This relaxed and necessary break from the focus on each child’s development is when parents can begin to learn each other’s stories.
Group music is another moment deliberately designed into the model of service where parents and children can enjoy playing musically together. Sometimes the permission for parents to play results in more rowdy behaviour from the adults than from the children!
When it is time for children to move on to school, we hope that both the children and the parents will have formed bonds with other families that will serve them well into the future. We encourage parents to support each other in sharing information and advocating for their children as they go through life.
Chat 21 Editor Coen Lammers was one of the parents experiencing the benefits of that peer support when he was part the centre’s programme with his daughter Bella and wife Suzi.
Bella and Coen recently presented to the Annual General Meeting of the Champion Centre to share their experiences and talk about the continuing value of the peer networks in their lives.
Bella spoke about her school, her work, her sports, her dancing and her social life, where in many cases she still enjoys the same friendships she developed when she attended the Champion Centre more than 13 years ago.
The 18-year-old still hangs out with the UPP Club Christchurch, dances at Jolt and swims against the same young men and women, she learned to crawl and walk with as a toddler.
At that same AGM, her dad explained that the connections for the parents are also still just as strong and just as important.
“We are lucky that the “Class of 2001” brought together a group of parents that instantly clicked, and we still see each other regularly,” said Coen.
He said the families get together regularly for birthday parties and other key events, and have created a Christmas meal tradition where the children are not invited.
“The interesting thing is that at the start we often talked about our children, about schools, funding or health issues, but as the years progressed, we have just become really good friends, well beyond the Down syndrome connection.”
“That connection brought us together, but is not why we get together. Saying that, having this group of parents still provides support when we need it, an opportunity to share information or spark some inspiration if we see one of the children doing something amazing,” says Coen.