Having a child who has special needs requires specialized support and can pose a significant set of challenges. Parents often struggle with lack of resources as well a sense of a loss of community because friends or family might not be able to relate to their life situation.
In 2016, Registered Nurse Alli Carr founded Happy Village International to support families with neurodiverse kids – those with learning or intellectual disabilities, developmental delays or other disorders. Carr says she was inspired to create the charity organization after working with kids for over 20 years, both locally and as an international volunteer in Africa.
In order to offer much-needed support, Carr created HAVI Friends, a free Montreal-based program where parents or caretakers and children participate together. Participants are matched with a volunteer (or sometimes two). For example, one volunteer might help with learning French while the other might focus on improving social skills.
The program is geared to those from age 2 to adulthood and children will multiple disabilities or disorders can also take part. Participants play, dance, and do art and other activities that might improve social or behavioural skills. Carr says fostering a strong relationship with a volunteer creates continuity for learning and improved socialization. Participants meet with their volunteers at least once a week for a session that ranges from 30 to 60 minutes. Volunteers come from diverse backgrounds and undergo a rigorous screening progress as well as extensive and continuous training.
Support for parents
Parents or caretakers participate in mandatory monthly workshops with guest speakers who cover topics such as financial planning, disability-specific subjects and yoga. Carr notes a top priority is supporting the parents and ensuring they learn how to spend some time focusing on themselves. In addition to providing a sense of community, parents also gain access to the program’s network of support.
Havi Friends has three sessions: winter/spring, summer and fall. Though it is currently only available online, there are plans for hybrid availability in the future. A new session starts January 10, 2022.
Carr says she hopes parents can come away from HAVI Friends with a reduced sense of anxiety. “They [parents] have a lot on their plates and we’re offering this program to provide a safe space and to encourage them to take time for themselves,” she said. “Often when you have children with neurodiversities, you don’t get that time.”
For more information, visit www.happyvillageintl.com
Related Read: Resource for parents of children with disabilities