For Jasmine Pena, having a sister with Down syndrome was not something she felt she could talk about with just anyone.
It wasn’t until she attended a workshop offered by the Sacramento-based WarmLine Family Resource Center, in partnership with the MIND Institute, that she met other people who had siblings with disabilities and became more open within this safe space. During the workshop, siblings have time to play together and work through activities. The children are offered a space to explore their experiences as a sibling of someone with special needs during the workshops. The goal with the activities is to create a community based on understanding for those in a family with someone with special needs.
“Your friends may or may not know someone with special needs,” Pena says. “Knowing there is someone else out there with a similar situation — it’s a way for them to express their feelings, what’s on their mind and their concerns.”
It’s a place of belonging. Community is really big for us.” Kelly Young, executive director, WarmLine Family Resource Center
The organization started as a support group founded by parents of children with special needs and gained its 501(c)3 status in 1997. WarmLine Family Resource Center has since evolved to help these families navigate special needs education services and health care institutions through free support, training and consultations. As a Parent Training Information Center, WarmLine provides training to parents and youth for special education from birth to the age of 26, though they offer additional programs for families with adult children well beyond that range.
“Whether someone with special needs is 2 or 75, they should have a voice like the rest of us. They should have choices,” says Executive Director Kelly Young.
Today, WarmLine now helps about 2,000 parents, students and professionals every year in Sacramento County and 26 additional counties. Funding for the programs comes from a variety of sources, including grants from state and federal entities. The majority of WarmLine’s funding, however, comes from the George and Lena Valente Foundation, says Young. The Sibling Workshop is funded by this foundation. “It’s a place of belonging,” Young says. “Community is really big for us.”
That sense of community stuck with Pena after attending the workshop geared to siblings of people with disabilities. Certain activities struck a chord, such as the My Special Dreams activity, during which children drew their dreams for their own future on one side of a paper and their dreams for their sibling with special needs on the other. She also enjoyed Dear Blabby, in which children read through a made-up situation in an advice column format where a sibling of someone with special needs asks for advice on a situation. The children in the Siblings Workshop work through the example together, offering their unique take on the scenario and how they would handle the situation. All of the activities aim to create a sense of community among siblings of people with special needs.
Today Pena is a facilitator for the sibling program, and her youngest sister is going through the workshops.
“More than anything, it gives the children a sense of something familiar,” Pena says. “A lot of kids have a hard time coping with the new disability of their sibling. It’s not only new to the parents; it’s also new to the other siblings.”