Overwhelmed families have an advocate in this organization

Overwhelmed families have an advocate in this organization
Photo by Susan Q Yin / Unsplash

By Rachel Swick Mavity

When Marsha Carter learned that her son was having difficulties at school and needed an IEP, or Individualized Educational Plan, she felt immediately overwhelmed.

“You walk into this meeting to talk about the IEP and there are all these teachers and a whole team and then there’s just you,” she said.

Luckily for Carter, who lives in New Castle County, she stumbled upon the Parent Information Center prior to the meeting and asked for support. The center representative talked to Carter and her son to learn more and then an advocate attended the IEP meeting with Carter.

“It can be a very intimidating process for parents,” Carter said. “The center was instrumental in providing clarity about the education plan and asked questions that I didn’t even know to ask.”

Having the advocate in the room also helped ease Carter’s worries and empowered her to ask questions.

“They helped me feel confident and secure,” she said. “You have someone with you who knows the law and who can make sure that the plan for your child is in the best interest of the child.”

“Because of them, we walked away with a good plan for my son.”

PIC Executive Director Meedra Surratte says she hears similar stories from many families throughout Delaware who have worked with the organization. The center provides services in all three counties.

When families are searching for resources, they often will find PIC in their research, but Surratte says outreach is something they continually need to work on.

When Surratte started with PIC more than 13 years ago, she was “impressed with this small but mighty organization.”

Prior to joining the organization, Surratte was a court-appointed special advocate (CASA), providing advocacy support for youth in the foster care system. One of the children she was working with had a disability, which led her to researching organizations that could provide educational and health care support.

Parent Information Center Executive Director Meedra Surratte. Submitted photo

When she found PIC, she was “so impressed to find a community resource for parents that she reached out to volunteer with them. And the rest is history.”

PIC programs provide:

  • Parent training and family leadership training
  • Public education ombudsperson (advocate)
  • Family-to-family health information and resource center
  • Surrogate parent program
  • Doula program
  • Early hearing intervention
  • Youth leadership training and education
  • Professional development

In addition to finding resources, families who call the center can expect to speak directly to a person who can help guide them through the processes. And, families that then work with PIC become capacity builders for the organization, Surratte says.

“Building capacity means we want the families to be knowledgeable and be empowered to seek out support,” Surratte said. “It is beyond just contacting the organization and getting access. We give them the tools to train other families and bring other families in to get access.”

Families become spokespeople for PIC and are able to share what is working and what isn’t with the team.

“It helps lift the family voice,” Surratte said.

Carter, like others served by PIC, is now a vocal proponent, sharing her story with others in the community. When she was starting the IEP process with her son, she stumbled upon the center, whereas she knows other families likely needed support but didn’t know about the group.

“It would be great if all the schools would provide an information or resource sheet at the beginning of the process that let parents know they can reach out to someone to have an advocate at the meetings,” Carter said.

Any time Carter hears a family is starting the IEP process, she is quick to tell them about the center and its resources.

“I really have taken and spread the word to other parents,” she said.

Surratte says getting the word out and partnering with social services and schools is something they are working on, but they do depend on word of mouth.

She said many families that have participated in the center become employees and volunteers. “We pride ourselves on employing parents of children with disabilities so that our staff have the lived experience,” Surratte said.

PIC, which was founded in 1983, has grown significantly over the years, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We were impacted significantly during the pandemic because so much of what we do is dependent on our staff who now had to be home with their children,” said Surratte.

However, through it all they focused on what families needed during that time, including much more social-emotional support.

“We had to quickly pivot with an increased online presence. Luckily, we had technology in place so our team could quickly work remotely,” Surratte said. Since then, the organization has grown significantly, adding new programs and resources including merging with the Family Voices Project and the Family Shade Project.

Delaware Family Voices and the Family Health Information Center focuses on inclusivity for families dealing with complex medical diagnoses and disabilities. The project offers peer-to-peer emotional support and services for families dealing with behavioral or emotional issues.

“This merger allows us to address concerns that became very important during COVID, including how families with children with special needs and disabilities could keep their kids safe even if they could not wear masks,” Surratte said. “We conducted statewide outreach and provided resources about vaccination and testing.”

The Family Shade Project is a mini-grant program. PIC contracted with the Delaware Division of Public Health to provide funding to organizations supporting families with special needs. The first two grants were recently awarded to Tomaro’s CHANGE and Jay’s House.

Tomaro’s CHANGE is a nonprofit based in Claymont that provides behavioral and mental health therapies and support services to families and individuals facing depression, anxiety, trauma, ADHD, gender identity issues, and more.

Jay’s House, also based in Claymont, supports children and families affected by autism through IEP literacy programs, advocacy, education, and more.

“We are so proud to be able to make these connections, provide services, and resources for the families in our community and we hope to continue to expand our services,” Surratte said. “Our primary goal is to lift the voices of our families so services continue to improve.”

Learn more: picofdel.org.

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