In early 2009, four families attended the first SNUG (Special Needs Unlimited Group) retreat. In each family there was a young girl with Rett Syndrome – a rare neurodevelopmental disorder that is almost exclusively found in girls. During the retreat the families were able to connect with other families living with Rett Syndrome, access dental and other health services, and enjoy a holiday with their family.
Since this first retreat there have been 18 SNUG retreats at Myuna Bay Sport and Recreation Centre. The five day retreats for families of children with rare conditions are offered by the University of Newcastle’s Family Action Centre and funded by the Steve Waugh Foundation. This experience gives families the opportunity to enhance resilience and wellbeing, while building supportive relationships with families in similar situations.
SNUG offers volunteering opportunities for students nearing completion of their undergraduate studies in fields that relate to children with disabilities such as speech pathology.
Volunteers live with a family with a child with a disability at Myuna Bay Recreational Facility during the six day residential programs. The live-in volunteer program allows the undergraduate to gain unique insight into the lives of the children and their families. The volunteers are educated by the Family Action Centre and professionally supervised throughout the program.
SNUG recognises that although caring for a child with special needs can be rewarding and fulfilling, it can also be quite challenging. At the retreats families can meet other families, share their experiences and insights, have a break from some of the demands of daily life, reflect on their strengths and challenges, and reconnect as a family.
The retreats aim to create support networks for families caring for children with special needs as well as improving their resilience and improving access to medical, dental, allied health and complementary therapy services for the children.
The retreats also educate undergraduate students in relation to the issues faced by families caring for children with special needs. Student volunteers from a range of university disciplines (primarily Occupational Therapy, Speech Pathology and Education) play a crucial role in the retreat by assisting with daily activities, accompanying families to dental and medical visits where required, assisting the Family Action Centre and Myuna Bay recreation staff in providing activities for the children, and generally ensuring the smooth running of the retreat.
Through their volunteering the students deepen their academic learning, share multidisciplinary perspectives, and gain an insight into the experience of families living with special needs. This experience is useful not only to their studies but also to their future careers.
Parent feedback shows that SNUG helps increase the resilience of families by providing respite for the whole family as well as creating a positive experience where families can spend time together and strengthen their relationships, as well making real connections with other families.
The SNUG Program received an Honourable Mention at a recent international award ceremony – the 2011 Community-Campus Partnerships for Health (CCPH) Annual Award. This award recognises outstanding collaborations between universities and communities worldwide, with the aim of supporting and encouraging community well-being.
Students interested in volunteering can contact the SNUG program coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 02 4921 6832.