Exceptional Families Workshops at the Children’s Museum

Exceptional Families of Pierce County offers support services for families with children with special needs. There are monthly support groups for families with special needs that are diagnosed with sensory issues or autism. This monthly support group is for parents. The children’s museum and exceptional families partnered this last fall.

Brenda Moorison, Communications Director for the Children’s Museum of Tacoma, explained, “We provide workshop space and open the museum for childcare during the workshop. Many families have struggled bringing their kids in public for many reasons, as the environment is unfriendly, over stimulating, and other parents don’t understand.

The museum is completely available for these families so adults have time together to talk about their experiences and kids get to play in the museum along with volunteers that work with special needs children that are from Exceptional Families of Pierce County and the museum.”

The Exceptional Families Workshops have taken place since this past September and according to Brenda, a trial period took place from October through December to see if the program would be a fit for the community. The Children’s Museum committed to another year of the program (until December), “we would obviously like to continue the program,” Brenda commented.

The Exceptional Families Workshop takes place the second Thursday of every month at 6 pm at the Children’s Museum and the program lasts approximately two hours.

Brenda informed us that the Children’s Museum is a “pay as you will” admission model to continue to keep the program affordable to families and families can pre-register their family with their children. Brenda commented: “If they choose to donate to the museum as a way to support the program that is appreciated, but not expected.”

Brenda feels what’s unusual about the program and the Children’s Museum is the fact that they are welcoming kiddos and typically their developing siblings have a really positive experience in the museum.

Angela Fish, Executive Director of the Exceptional Families Network and founder of SPECIAL Families of Pierce County, wanted to further explain about the two programs, “The Exceptional Families Network is a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit that serves families that have children with special needs and the SPECIAL families of Pierce County is a parent support group program of the Exceptional Families Network.”

Angela provided history on the Exceptional Families Workshops before they partnered with the Children’s Museum, “SPECIAL Families of Pierce County was founded in 2008 as a support for parents that have children with special needs. In that time, we had never been able to offer childcare at our meetings in the Parkland/Spanaway area.

Access to childcare can be a very difficult thing when you have a child with special needs, so a lack of childcare at our meetings has been a significant barrier for many families. It is particularly true for single parents and spouses of deployed military. Last September, as a pilot project, the Children’s Museum of Tacoma allowed us come in with our group and they offered their space to us in order to reach more families in the community, only this time with childcare! The response to our brand new second meeting site was overwhelming, and almost immediately we exceeded our anticipated capacity and had to begin putting families on a waiting list for childcare for our monthly meeting nights. Over those few months last fall, we were able to demonstrate that there is truly a great need in the special needs community for access to these types of events, not only for the childcare in a supported and inclusive setting, but for the emotional well-being of the parents. The kids have a total blast and the parents get respite. The Children’s Museum of Tacoma has graciously allowed us to continue our meetings through 2013, and we are very excited to partner with them in order to provide greater access for these undeserved populations. At the meetings, children are supported by a great team of well-qualified volunteers. They get to practice their social skills and communication, and they also learn through play. The parents get a much-needed break. They get to learn something from an expert speaker on a relevant topic, and they get to connect with other adults in a meaningful way.”

Angela expressed her gratitude for the workshops, “These special meeting nights at the museum are really wonderful! Everyone really loves being there. First of all, the museum galleries are interactive and super fun. The kids can’t wait to run through the doors and start to play. I think the volunteers love it almost as much as the kids do! We are fortunate to have volunteers that are well-qualified, either as professionals that work with children that have special needs or as family members or friends of a child with special needs, or our resident play experts, the museum employees. The parents have smiles on their faces, they are relaxed, and they can engage as adults in learning and networking.

We have received a lot of positive feedback, and some families have shared that these meetings are the highlight of their month. It’s great to know how valuable these nights are to all involved, and we hope to continue growing the program so that more families can access this wonderful opportunity.”

Angela commented on the best thing about the Exceptional Families Workshops, “The best things about the meetings are the people. We see new faces every month, and we also see a lot of familiar faces every month, too. We get to know the kids and we see their joy as they get to play without the worry of being too overwhelmed or being different. Generally speaking, parents are always on guard when they leave their home. They work hard to help their children navigate challenges all while being under the scrutiny of others because their child cannot behave or act as expected. Special needs families are often isolated. Our goal is to combat that feeling and create opportunities to strengthen those families. At our meetings, everyone understands that we are all different and that it’s okay. There is a lot of freedom in that.”

Angela informed us how the Exceptional Families Workshops were implemented at the Children’s Museum, “The Executive Director of the Children’s Museum of Tacoma heard me speak to a group of people about my experience with my own 2 boys with autism, as well as the work I was doing through my blog, support group and nonprofit organization. We met and had a great conversation about how we might be able to work together. The museum was looking for ways to better reach children with special needs, and I was looking for ways to grow my support group and offer childcare because I knew the need was there. We both recognized that special needs populations are underserved and that if we partnered, we might be able to more effectively deal with some of gaps that exist in our community. Although we haven’t been doing these meetings for very long at the museum, I think we have really demonstrated the value of this program and I can only hope for a lasting partnership between the Exceptional Families Network and the Children’s Museum of Tacoma.”

When asked who she recommended attend these workshops, Angela replied, “We are inclusive of diagnosis, so we welcome everyone. If you are a parent of a child with special needs and you would like to meet other parents and learn something, then these meetings are for you! Our hope is that you can go home after each meeting with something new – a small tidbit of information, or a whole lot of information – that might help you be a better parent for your child with special needs. Parents are welcome to attend with or without their children, and if they do bring their kids, they must be pre-registered with a confirmed status. We also encourage professionals, students, and other interested community members to attend if they would also like to learn something related to special needs. It’s a really fun group and we’d love to have more people join us!”

For more information about Exceptional Families and SPECIAL Families of Pierce County, Dena Radcliffe, SPECIAL Families of Pierce County Tacoma Group Leader, for downtown Tacoma can be reached via email at: specialfamiliestacoma@gmail.com.

Angela Fish continues to manage the Parkland/Spanaway meeting site and can be reached at: specialfamiliespc@gmail.com. All meeting information, including dates, times, speakers and topics, can be found on the Events page of the Exceptional Families Network website: www.exceptionalfamilies.org or http://www.exceptional-families.org/events.html. Facebook websites include: www.facebook.com/specialfamiliespc and www.facebook.com/exceptionalfamiliesnetwork.


By: Carly Calabrese, staff for Tacoma.com