A New Support Group Setting Goals For Tomorrow
by Dennis Radman

Let’s plant a rose bush! Hannah’s excitement got the better of her while having breakfast with her husband. Hannah revived a long-standing dream of a garden and the centerpiece was her beloved roses. One Saturday morning, a juvenile rose bush from the local nursery found a new home in Hannah’s backyard. For a time the rose bush struggled; the branches remained bare and nothing seemed to work. Hannah tried a number of gardening strategies to no avail. As a last resort (or hope?), Hannah tried one more thing, she moved the rose bush. Pay-dirt, she found the sweet spot. Sunshine, some tender loving care and soon there were a few leaves and one blooming flower. That’s how it started – something precious, something important – a goal was set and the first steps were taken towards making Hannah’s dream a reality.

At the Brain Injury Association of Windsor/ Essex County (BIAWE) I have been facilitating our support group for several years now. The format of the group follows a traditional model that includes a social aspect where the group networks, socializes and participates in an open discussion. Additionally the facilitators provide short formal presentations on topics of interest and these topics change from month to month. I always felt we could do more. Hannah had a dream – but the support group was not structured in a way to help her with her rose garden. How could we help Hannah and others like her – but yet still keep the support group format intact? The answer was flipping the formula on its head. Instead of having monthly topics I started with a foundational approach, with goals and goal-setting. Rather than have one topic each month the group would have the same topic for several consecutive weeks. Further, the group would be simultaneously shaped as a group and individualized; everyone would be setting and working on goals and importantly, each member would choose and work on their own goal.

Defining the goal-setting support group

The parameters were simple. The group met weekly for 6 consecutive weeks. Goal setting was the first step. Each member either came prepared with a goal or was supported with developing a goal. Then as each week passed everyone was encouraged to work on their goals. During each meeting each participant would get a turn to talk about their goal, the progress they made, any barriers they faced and any questions they might have. The spotlight went around the group, one person at a time. Each person was allotted about 10 minutes to talk about and get support with their goal. During that time the rest of the group was entrusted and constricted to only providing support, sharing ideas, problem-solving, strategizing as it related to the goal in question for that one person.

Energy in the room

Palpable. That’s the best word I could think of to describe what transpired as each week went by. Instead of an elephant in the room, where stigma and fear would dominate the air, here, each person contributed to a flame of hope and inspiration. There was excitement, not only in sharing the progress each person made but also in anticipation of finding out how their fellow group members faired over the past week. There were cheers of joy when triumphs and successes were shared. When hurdles were met, it was met with immediate empathy and support. An important point to make clear: the participants themselves provided the energy and were duly fueled by it. I was privileged to be witness to it. Absolutely incredible!

I know I am going to get my turn

From bike riding, to planning a family trip and learning to play the piano – the goals were as varied as was the support given to move them forward. Despite the diversity of goals the underlying structure of consistency enabled each person equal opportunity to pursue their goals and get support. Towards the end of the 6 weeks one participant shared how important it was for her to know that when she attended the weekly group that she would get her turn. She summarized what the group meant to her quite beautifully, “It gives me life – I know I want to accomplish some things – and coming here I know I am going to get my turn.” In a wide-open environment the group is often dominated by a small number of people. By establishing a compulsory allotment of time for each person an equitable and safe environment was created.

A Bustling Two-Way Street

Support groups provide an opportunity for members both to receive support and to provide it. The goal-setting group maximized the benefits of this two-way street by ensuring a balanced flow of receipt and provision of support. Receiving support from other group members can reduce sense of stigma, isolation, and improve a number of skills not to mention the development of some new relationships. Providing support and meeting often gives members the opportunity to rehearse new strategies and increases feelings of purpose, self-efficacy, and self-worth. This group exemplified balancing a ‘give-and-take’ mantra.

Don’t Look Back – You’re Not Going That Way

The difficulty with understanding the impacts of brain injury can only be matched by the complexity of the brain itself. A sense of loss is a common challenge faced by those touched by brain injury. So many domains, skills and dreams can be shattered. It’s nearly impossible to not look back at what was. This support group is about planting seeds of hope, which like the sun, as we journey towards it, casts the shadow of our burden behind us. As each week passed by, each participant described not only looking forward to sharing their own progress, their own successes but they looked forward to finding out about their peer’s as well. The tone, content and atmosphere got brighter and brighter. What was shared each week focused solely on the goals being worked on, the solutions to barriers found and strategies used to develop skills and facilitate success. One member poignantly captured the essence of the group, “Nobody is talking about the past. We’re all helping each other move forward.”

Everyone’s Got My Back

Finding optimal conditions for a rose bush to thrive takes patience, flexibility and perseverance. Although us human-folk may not ‘plant roots’ when we set goals and start something new it’s challenging nonetheless. More so when brain injury is part of the equation. Taking the first step is not as easy as it sounds; it’s often the hardest. Many need to pool all the resources and support at their disposal. The support group provided that support in spades (yes, pun intended, twice). Each week, each person had over a dozen people ‘at their back’. When you have so many supporters behind you giving you a little push, a little cheer – and when necessary providing you the ideal sunlight and soil conditions – getting the ball rolling with a goal goes from overwhelming to exciting in a heartbeat.

Towards the end of the 6 weeks – I sought feedback from the group. You always want to evaluate, to improve and to include those you serve in deciding how to shape the environment they want to be in. Constructive criticism was welcome and the group provided it. Together a name was aptly chosen, “Seeds of Hope”. There’s some fine-tuning that I will make to the materials and logistics. The positive feedback was inspiring: the group wanted to run it again, rather soon and for much longer. The next iteration will get started early in the new year and will run for 8 weeks. I look forward to seeing what kinds of rose bushes get planted next time.


Originally published in the OBIA Review