NH Family Support Conference: A place where you can be you
Two families talk about their experiences at the annual event
My girls and I have been attending the New Hampshire Family Support Conference for five years. The conference has become a bright beacon for our family. It is something we look forward to every year. What are my girls’ favorite parts of the conference? One would say the anticipation and planning. One would say the road trip up to the beautiful Omni Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods. And another would say the pool. Mom says it is the chance to breathe and have the freedom to unapologetically be you.
My 13-year-old twin girls, Marisole and Isabella, are proud big sisters to 8-year-old Katie. My twins are typically developing; Katie was born with Down syndrome. Down syndrome is a genetic condition which involves an extra copy of the 21st chromosome. For Katie, this extra chromosome means frequent doctor visits, therapies, specialists and hospital stays. Katie’s sisters often join us in our medical travels and have become experts, along with their Mom, about Katie’s medical needs and how to ensure she stays healthy. With that knowledge is extra worry and concern for their sister’s well-being.
Attending the Family Support conference is a welcoming experience from the minute you arrive and are greeted by the staff. They are all well versed in the needs of families touched by disabilities. They understand it may take us longer to disembark from our cars and we may have heavy medical equipment to unload. Everyone is treated as valued guests from start to finish.
The conference can be a whirlwind the first time. Thankfully the hotel is full of people who have been in the same situation. Everyone is welcoming and new friends can be made while simply asking for directions. The main lobby is full of informational tables with vast amounts of disability-related resources and smiling faces hoping to make a difference in your life. You may recognize a family you know from your school district, or a staff member from your area agency, or a committee member from your Family Support Council. You will find the beautiful interior of the hotel lobby, with its high ceilings and antique furniture robust with conversation and laughter.
I look forward to seeing friends I have made from all over the state and catching up while our children play in the arcade. I enjoy stopping by a vendor table and learning about opportunities or resources that may be helpful to Katie and our family. Attending the workshops and continuing my education as a parent and advocate builds my confidence year after year. Socializing with families at breakfast and belting out my favorite tunes, quite horribly, at karaoke for the adults are always memorable moments of understanding and connection.
My older girls have stayed in touch with other siblings they have met at the conference, telling me those friendships sometimes come easier than ones at school because they get it. They understand what my girls are going through because they are experiencing the same worries and the same feelings of knowing their brother or sister with the disability usually comes first. I am grateful they have these relationships.
At the Family Support Conference two years ago, while checking out of the hotel, my daughter Katie was missing for about 10 minutes. One minute she was standing beside me and the next she was nowhere to be found. Once I calmed down and was able to reflect on the experience, I realized we couldn’t have been in a better place — a hotel full of people who get it. They understood what I was going through and helped me find my daughter.
We do not judge. We listen to one another, learn from each other and offer our support. Attending the conference gives me the opportunity to connect with families and grow our circle of friends while learning more about our community. My girls and I have learned we have a place where we will always be accepted and feel comfortable to be ourselves.
Family of child with autism finds support and connection at conference
by Jennifer and Shawn Bertrand
The New Hampshire Family Support Conference has been a valuable experience for our family over the last 20 years. The conference provides essential information about the latest developments related to best practices around education, employment, transition, housing, etc. as well as support for individuals with disabilities.
Attending is a critical opportunity to network with experts specializing in all areas of disability and with parents who either are experiencing challenges similar to yours or have seen those challenges and can provide support and guidance. Every year, the conference leaves us with renewed energy and vital information to use in supporting our daughter to live a meaningful, inclusive life.
Our favorite aspects of the conference are the networking opportunities as they have provided the most important and lasting impact. The sessions provide a solid base for re-energizing advocacy efforts with useful and up-to-date information. When our boys (siblings of our daughter with autism) attended the conference, they enjoyed meeting other kids their age and found some helpful support in talking with them about the challenges they experienced.
All conference organizers, speakers, and volunteers aim to provide a welcoming atmosphere for families where sessions are well-balanced across age groups. The conference also balances the education of its attendees and the need for families to have that important time away.
For families attending the conference for the first time, we highly recommend introducing themselves to session speakers, who themselves are knowledgeable and well-connected members of the community and who can suggest the next steps and other individuals to contact for more information.
The free-time and evening activities are also very important to expand network opportunities and just enjoy the time away. While it may be difficult to find support for your child with autism, it’s been beneficial for our family to have a break from our care-giving responsibilities and devote our full attention to the conference and its many benefits.