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The
Community
Psychologist

Volume 54, Number 2 Spring 2021

Self-Help and Mutual Support Interest Group

Edited by Thomasina Borkman, George Mason University and Ronald Harvey, American University in Bulgaria

Organizing and Expanding the Self-Help Support Group, “New Beginnings”: Part 2 of 3

Written by Carol Randolph, New Beginnings

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[Carol Randolph, founder of New Beginnings (NB) continues her narrative (story) of how the group became organized, grew and evolved in functions over the last 41 years in this second installment. The third and final installment will discuss how the internet affected New Beginnings as well as other self-help support groups and relate New Beginnings’ journey to that of other similar groups. Contact: NewBCarol@verizon.net and www.newbeginningsusa.org]

In selecting a name, we wanted it to be positive. Our first thought was “Fresh Start,” but we rejected that because it was already being used for a laundry detergent.  We settled on New Beginnings.  In the summer of 1980, I asked my aunt–an accomplished graphic artist who taught at Hood College for many years–to design a logo.  

It is the one we have today, based on the Chinese symbol of yin/yang: Each only exists in relationship to the other.  Without dark, there can be no light.  Without pain, there can be no joy.  Our slogan became an end is also a new beginning.            

By 1980, about a year after NB began, we realized we needed a membership and fee structure. Newsletters with meeting announcements were being printed and mailed to anyone who was interested, but many of them never attended.  Membership was a way to identify those who were serious about participating and create the income to cover the newsletter costs.  A member/non-member fee structure for meetings was an additional “a la carte” income stream that covered refreshments and meeting supplies (name tags, handouts) and allowed us to keep membership low.

Initial membership dues were $15 ($5 for renewal); meeting fees were $3 for members, $5 for non-members.  Today, members and non-members both paid $10 for in-person meetings; online meeting fees are $5 for members and $8 for non-members.  Membership dues were increased in 1982, 1984, 1996, 2004 and lastly in 2011 to $35 for 6 months, $59/year or $99 for two years.  Membership, event fees and donations are our only form of financial support.

Now, when someone wants to start a support group, I tell them to create a fee structure from the very beginning.  It is always easier to raise a fee already in place than to create a fee where none was before.  There will always be costs.

Once money was involved, we needed to incorporate.  An attorney for whom I was working at the time suggested we do so as a nonprofit instead of a for-profit, so that we would have access to free or discounted resources like space and advertising.  He helped us with the paperwork, and in September 1980, NB was incorporated as a charitable organization.  We got our federal tax-exempt status in November 1981 and our bulk mail permit in October 1983.  Our name and logo became a registered trademark in October 1985.  Eventually, we registered as a charity in both Maryland and Virginia.  At each big step, I was lucky to have mentors to guide me because the business of a growing nonprofit organization, operating in three jurisdictions, was new and scary territory.

The DC metro area is unique in that any organization, no matter where it is based, really operates in the equivalent of three states:  Maryland, DC (District of Columbia) and Virginia.  In each one, we had to register to do business, obtain exemption from sales tax, and register also as a charitable organization for fundraising purposes.  All of these are renewable on some regular basis.  Keeping up with the paperwork is a challenge.

A clear mission statement is critical and an important part of the incorporation process.  What are you trying to do and for whom?  And then, how are you going to do it?  NB’s mission is to provide education and support to people coping with marital separation and divorce through facilitated discussion meetings, expert speakers and structured social programs.  We have never wavered from that in spite of well-meaning pressure to do so: open membership to widows and widowers, allow both partners to join, promote a dating service, or accept outside advertising in our newsletter.  Any one of these has the potential to alter the essential character and integrity of the organization as it was intended to be.

To explain in more detail, we actually did allow widows/widowers in the very beginning but quickly realized their experience was fundamentally different from that of people coping with divorce.  For the most part, their marriages were happy, and the loss of their partner was a tragic event that had nothing to do with them.  Family and friends rallied around them with support, meals, offers to help, inclusion in social events--whereas people coping with divorce often experienced quite the opposite as friends who knew both partners retreated.  Even now, with the increased incidence of divorce, I believe there remains a lurking suspicion that somehow someone could’ve done something to prevent it—and that diminishes how much support is merited. 

The decision to allow only one partner to join was an easy one—an issue for both the individual and the group.  Our goal was to create a safe place for members to talk about strong feelings.  That would not be possible if there was any chance of their ex showing up at the same meeting.  Even if we were able to implement procedures to prevent that, it becomes a group issue similar to that faced by friends of both people.  Group members might hear one partner’s version of what happened at one meeting and then hear a potentially conflicting version at another meeting.  One partner might talk about wanting to reconcile while the other talks about starting to date.  It is important for both the individual member and the group as a whole that full support is afforded everyone.

I have often mused that we could have a concurrent meeting of all the exes in another room, and the tone would be much the same with “good guys” in both rooms.  Few of us craft a view of the world in which we are the bad guy.  Limiting membership to only one partner ensures there are no conflicting views of the world.  

It can be very tempting to try to help everyone, and especially in the beginning, it’s hard to turn anyone away.  Knowing your audience and what you offer that no one else does, as reflected in your mission statement, are key.

Turning back to the issue of how NB developed as an organization, in 1982, I had a table at a county self-help fair to promote NB.  I came home with 150 names of people wanting to come to a meeting.  I panicked and assembled a group of our most active members to create a committee structure–Programming, Membership, Publicity, Social Events.  My biggest mistake was not delegating earlier.  Delegating spreads the ownership of the group and creates a stronger foundation that isn’t dependent on one person.

NB is essentially a volunteer organization that relies on members to host and facilitate meetings, to plan and develop topics for discussion, to plan and implement social events.  There is a ladder of responsibility that encourages and celebrates leadership. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, hosting a meeting was sometimes the first time a member welcomed people into their new home as a newly single person.  They had to take RSVPs on the phone and talk to people they didn’t know.  They had to plan and shop for refreshments.  They had to prepare the space and greet people.  These are all social skills that may not come easily but are essential to moving forward. 

Members who aspire to become facilitators complete a written application and commit to a weekend of 16 hours of training.  They are evaluated, and not all pass.  Subjecting themselves to such a rigorous endeavor, in such a visible forum among peers, requires courage and a level of self-esteem indicative of moving past the early trauma.  As they continue to facilitate, they refine their communication and listening skills and—as we tell them the first day of training—more than anything else, they confront themselves, their personal strengths and challenges.

Volunteering for these leadership roles can be a huge statement of entry into a new life. Serving on a committee or becoming a facilitator offer key leadership roles that help perpetuate the organization and demonstrate tangible progress in personal recovery. Time and money are the magical ingredients that make anything work–volunteer time to make things happen and money to pay for things that can’t be accomplished or acquired through volunteers.  If you have a lot of one, you need less of the other, but you always need both.

I turned the walk-in closet in my one-bedroom apartment into an “office,” with an IBM typewriter and a 12-foot cord on my kitchen phone.  When I remarried and moved to a house, we made space in the basement.  When we sold that house, top criteria for a new house was space for NB parties and an office for two people.  I have always worked from home.

It was five years before there was enough money to pay me anything, and even then it was merely a stipend.  In our boom years, there was money to pay me a salary AND support a near-full-time assistant.  My mother also worked for NB one day/week for 16 years.  We made good use of volunteers--high school students, job programs, even court-ordered community service.

As income has declined, I have voluntarily reduced what I am paid.  Grant money is not readily available for people coping with divorce unless they are low-income or victims of domestic violence.  I think that even today divorce is seen as someone’s fault and preventable.  Applying for grants is labor-intensive, and I gave up trying after disappointing results.  Ironically, the one exception has been during the COVID-19 pandemic when we have been able to get support because all of our in-person programs were shut down.

People tend to join NB for 1-3 years.  Most statistics support a 2-year recovery period from a divorce, which can vary if there is a protracted or acrimonious court battle. Many stick around beyond that because by then they have developed a strong social community within the group.  Others maintain their membership as financial support even though they no longer participate as members.  Several facilitators are long-time members; one has been a volunteer for 17 years.

At any given time, at any meeting, newly separated people see others at various stages ahead of–and behind–them.  They SEE that it is possible to survive this crisis even though it may not feel that way right then.  Eventually, they can offer wisdom and encouragement to someone else, and that in itself speeds their process.  Help yourself by helping others.  This is really the foundation of self-help and mutual support.

For most of its history, NB has operated as a founder-based nonprofit with me as sole staff and primary decision-maker.  The small Board of Directors, drawn from members and former members, helps shape our direction, determine dues and fees, and approve my salary.  In 2009, our 30th year, I realized I could not run NB forever and that we would need a serious infusion of money to pay anyone else a competitive salary.  I expanded the Board and launched our “Transition to the Future” fundraising campaign.  My hope for a “working” Board, one that actively shared responsibility for and engagement in the organization, has never been realized.  No one could be compelled to fundraise.  It is possible that I had been identified synonymously with NB for too long.

Looking back, I admit that in the beginning—typical of a Founder—I needed control of my creation.  The idea that a group of people appointed by me could have the power to kick me out, was terrifying.  Had I been able to recruit and sustain an active Board from the beginning, the organization might be in a better place today.  Then again, it might not have lasted as long as it has.  I know that much of our longevity is due to my dedication and determination to keep NB going.

I would love for NB to continue beyond my tenure, but that now appears unlikely—both because of diminished demand and because the money isn’t there to pay a sufficient salary.  When I expressed regret about this to a former member, she said, “You already have a legacy.”  Among other impacts:

  • Thousands of people turned to NB at a time of crisis in their lives and found hope and solace.
  • Many of those people gained leadership skills participating as trained facilitators, hosting meetings in their homes and/or organizing social events and weekend retreats.
  • Even more made close, lifelong friends.  Eight of them retired to the same community.
  • Several facilitators turned to careers as therapists.
  • 204 couples met in NB and married; some had children.  There are people on the planet because of NB!  

Again and again through 41 years, I have been told, “NB saved my life.”  There is, of course, no way to gauge what might have happened without NB or how much what did happen is attributable to NB.  Still, the strength and frequency of such assertions is subjective proof of its impact on many lives.

Learning you are not alone, that you are not crazy, that others share your experience—these are powerful benefits, and they apply to any support group.  Add to that the knowledge base that can only come from lived experience, from people who have grappled with the same challenges and triumphed over the same obstacles to find real solutions.  Support groups are an integral part of our mental health service delivery system, yet their impact is best measured anecdotally by the people whose lives are made better by their existence.  It is immensely gratifying to me to have contributed to that effort.