Sunday, March 16, 2014

Not-So-Secret Secrets of Homeschool Support Group Success

I have been homeschooling for nearly 20 years.  Seventeen years ago,  two friends and I decided to start a new homeschool support group.  We had been part of a small group that didn't quite fit the needs of our families at the time.  We wanted to be part of a group that would be a source of encouragement for homeschool moms,  provide activities for our children, and provide a source for friendships for both!

We had 20 moms at our very first meeting, and the idea became a reality. Today this support group is made of just over 300 families, and is one of the strongest and most active groups in our area.  Here are a few things that I think have been instrumental to its success. 

Structure :  It would have been easy at the beginning, when it was just the 3 of us, to think that we didn't need any formal structure to the group. Why have By-laws and a leadership council for a small support group?  But we were given good advice  and so set up a structure for our group from the beginning which allowed us to distribute responsibilities, utilize the gifts and talents of our members, and grow without overburdening any one person.  Our group has a 7-member Leadership board consisting of a president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, membership coordinator, calendar/event coordinator, and hospitality coordinator. There are also "non-board leaders" who take on important roles in the support group such as librarian, yearbook editor, Iowa testing coordinator, webmaster, sports program director, etc.  When our group passed 200 families a couple of years ago, we added Advisors to help the Calendar/Events coordinator, and those Advisors helped in specific areas -  Academic Activities, Social Activities, Family Activities,  Field Trips, Teen Activities, Parent Support. Their job is to  help find activity coordinators, secure a facility if needed, offer advice in planning and carrying out the group activities, and also communicate monthly with the Leadership Board.  Structure is just one of the things that has led to longevity and growth for our support group.

August Parent Meeting

Focus on Encouragement and Relationships:   Why do people join support groups?  While field trips, park days, and spelling bees are all fun, encouragement is the most fundamental need that homeschool parents have. And although encouragement can be found in a book or magazine or website or blog, the best kind of encouragement comes from real people with whom we have real relationships - i.e. from friends!   Relationships are the glue that holds a support group together. With people all around us telling us we are crazy and probably ruining our kids, we NEED the moral support of others who have chosen the same path for their families. When we  have those days when we reach the end of our rope and declare the the kids are getting on that school bus TOMORROW, we need someone to call who can not only sympathize (because we've all been there), but can also offer guidance and suggestions to get us through the crisis, help us see the forest for the trees, and remind us of the reasons we are homeschooling in the first place.  Is your support group a place of support and encouragement?  Are there leaders or experienced homeschoolers available to answer questions or talk with a member who is struggling? Are there regular  meetings or gatherings where moms can talk, ask questions, share struggles, and celebrate victories? Some of the ways our support group offers encouragement is through monthly parent meetings, mentor groups, Facebook page, Yahoogroups email loop, Dads' breakfasts, informal rendezvous in the parking lot or at McDonalds after the monthly meeting, parent workshops, and park days. The format of our monthly meetings varies, and while sometimes we have a speaker or panel talking about a topic, other times we spend some or all of the time broken up into small circles with a leader/seasoned homeschooler in each circle to help facilitate discussions. In addition to encouragement, members are able to share experiences and glean from the wisdom of the older homeschool moms.

 New Homeschool Moms Brunch

Building up  New Leaders:  An integral part of support group leadership is identifying and building up new leaders.  Our Board positions are 2-year terms, with 3 or 4  Board members being replaced every year.   One benefit of this is that it is easier to ask someone to serve for 2 years, than to ask them to serve indefinitely! We also have numerous other leadership positions, which a person may hold for longer or shorter.  Keeping an eye out for active members who show a committment to homeschooling and a willingness to serve others is the beginning of building up new leaders.  First we ask these people to take on small jobs, and then larger ones with more responsibility, helping them along as needed.  We also look for those members with particular talents or abilities, such as accounting or graphic design or website design, and encourage them to contribute that talent to the group.  Leaders set the tone and promote unity in your group by focusing on what you all have in common, rather than on your differences.  They should be expected to set an example of wisdom, mercy, and humility.  All leaders are invited to a monthly leaders meeting, where support group business is discussed and relationships with the other leaders are built.  A day long "leaders retreat" is scheduled each June, for the purpose of making plans for the upcoming year but also for training new leaders and discussing the support group's mission, vision, and bylaws.

Vison:  Why do we homeschool?  Why do we have a support group?  What does our support group do?  What does it not do?  These are some of the questions that go into defining the vision of your support group.  Are you a co-op that provides academic enrichment classes? Are you a play group?  Are you focused on teens? On parent support and field trips?   Leaders should know the group's vision, mission, and purpose, and use those things to evaluate the direction of the group from time to time. Print it and hand it out to your members.  Put it on your website.  Add it to the bottom of your emails. 
Share the vision with your members often.

We believe God has given parents the authority and responsibility to direct the education of their children. Education includes the whole child - not only the mind, but also the heart, soul, and body. True education begins with a relationship with Jesus Christ.

We are an association of homeschooling families and our purpose is to provide support and encouragement to one another in our homeschooling endeavor; to provide opportunities for our children to participate in large and small group activities for academic, social, and character-building purposes; to share information about local, state, and national happenings of interest to homeschool families.

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