Vol. 17, No. 6 November 2, 2000 Issue

‘Helping people help each other’

By Amy Geiszler-Jones

Wichitan Janice Dow became involved in the self-help group Compassionate Friends, following the death of her 19-year-old son in 1992. Since that time she’s been involved with the Self-Help Network, as well, acting as a spokesperson at various meetings about the value of self-help groups.

To find a support group, contact the Self-Help Network, 978-3843.

There’s a sign – a couple dozen words in black type on a white piece of paper – that hangs on Greg Meissen’s and Mary Warren’s office door in the Self-Help Network of Kansas in Jabara Hall. It’s simple, yet it speaks volumes about the philosophy of a WSU service that has grown from a referral and support system for self-help groups to a significant research center involved in projects to enhance lives and communities throughout Kansas.

It reads: "Never underestimate the power of a small group of people to change the world. In fact it’s the only way it ever has. – Margaret Mead"

While they aren’t trying to change the world on the grand global scale, the 10 staff members of the Self-Help Network of Kansas are doing what they can to change the worlds of individuals and Kansas communities.

Recently, it lengthened its name to reflect the broadening nature of its mission – it’s now known as the Self-Help Network of Kansas: A WSU Center for Community Support and Research. It’s a significant step for this action-research unit that came to the WSU campus in 1986 with a focus on connecting individuals to self-help groups, offering support for those wanting to start groups and conducting research with such groups.

Now it garners thousands of dollars in research from such major sources as the Kansas Health Foundation, Kansas’ Social and Rehabilitation Services and the National Institutes for Health. In the past five fiscal years alone, it received more than $2.5 million. And projects keep coming in, like a recent $1.2 million grant to help Kansas communities start initiatives that will eventually make them the best place in the country to raise healthy children.

Spend a little time with Meissen, the network’s executive director, or Warren, its director of development and operations, and you’ll soon conclude that their enthusiasm and belief in people being able to help themselves are a major reason for the network’s success. But you’ll also soon hear the words "shared leadership," a concept that both use to describe as key to many of the projects the network is involved in and something that is practiced at the network.

Humble beginnings

Wichita social worker Evelyn Middlestadt started the Self-Help Network in her home 1984, offering a service that made referrals to and helped start local groups for different life conditions. By 1986, she realized the network needed a permanent home.

That’s when WSU’s psychology department agreed to house the office. Meissen, a WSU alumnus who had joined his alma mater’s psychology faculty in 1980, had been working with Middlestadt and seemed a natural choice to lead the network.

Within a couple years, the network was on its way to becoming a statewide clearinghouse for self-help referrals. A few years after that, it had become one of the top two self-help clearinghouses in the United States.

Now it has earned the reputation of being a center that can work with various partners in a variety of ways – as an evaluator, as a project manager, as a support system – for projects essentially aimed at "helping people help each other," a tagline the network uses.

Answering the calls

Occasionally, someone misinterprets the self-help in the network’s name and calls looking for a good plumber or some legal advice. The majority of calls, however, are from people looking for a group of people who share the same health problem or life situation.

That’s why Wichitan Ralph Welsby initially called the network about three years ago. His migraines were becoming more frequent and intense, and he wanted to connect with other migraine sufferers to find out how others coped. He discovered there wasn’t such a group.

So the Self-Help Network did what it usually does when it discovers no such group existed. It asked Welsby if he’d be interested in starting such a group in Sedgwick County, and Shelly Tiemeyer, the network’s community services coordinator, offered to help him get started.

Initially Welsby declined, saying he wasn’t looking to add more stress, a contributing factor to his migraines, to his life. However when he learned the network stresses "shared leadership," he took the challenge. Tiemeyer came to the group’s initial meetings and advised it on how to get more people involved in leading the group’s activities.

"We encourage doing things in pairs," says Candy Youle, the network’s special events coordinator. "It’s much more supportive."

Referrals going up

Ads and posters, like the ones pictured, are part of media campaigns that tell college students the "real truth" about drinking on their campus, based on extensive local research which documents that most college students drink in moderation. The Self-Help Network is working with Kansas State, the University of Kansas, Emporia State and Fort Hays State to coordinate the campaigns.

In the past few years, the Self-Help Network has been making more than 10,000 referrals annually to self-help groups. Between five and 10 volunteers complement the network’s staff to help answer those calls for support.

Last fiscal year, the network logged its highest number of referrals – a whopping 14,623. That averages to more than 280 referrals a week. The year before it had made more than 12,000 referrals.

The numbers seem staggering, but it’s a sign that people are looking for ways of dealing with situations. "More people have used self-help groups than any other form of health care," says Meissen. "And it doesn’t cost anything. It’s a movement that’s almost invisible."

In Kansas, where possibly more than 3,000 self-help groups exist, that movement has been bolstered by the Self-Help Network.

"There are more self-help groups in Kansas than any other state per capita," says Meissen. "That’s about Kansas and that’s about the fact that we’ve been here a long time helping people find those groups."

In Sedgwick County alone, there are about 500 groups.

"And those are just the ones we know about," notes Youle.

Mining a ‘treasure’

When Youle began working at the network last year, she was impressed with what she calls its "amazing free gift, for just a phone call.

"Someone can call and have access to 3,000 different hotlines, helplines and groups," she says. "It’s really a hidden treasure."

The network is now mining the lessons it has learned from working with self-help groups and is applying them to its research projects, says Meissen.

For instance, most of its projects in some way involve partners – that’s the concept of shared leadership at work. A number revolve around providing support with the eventual outcome being that individuals or groups continue those projects on their own – that’s the concept of helping people help themselves.

Helping to make healthy communities

Courtesy Photo

Greg Meissen, right, presents an award to Elbert Lewis for being a volunteer with the Self-Help Network for the past 10 years. Shortly after retiring from Boeing, Lewis started volunteering with the network. Among his duties are setting up and staffing the network’s booth at about 15 health fairs annually and helping update the network’s directory of self-help groups.

Within the past year the network concluded its part in a national study, and then almost immediately embarked on four more statewide projects.

From 1993-99, the Self-Help Network was involved in Project ACCESS, a nationwide study done in nine states and funded by the NIH. It found integrating services for mentally ill homeless people would be a more successful approach. It also developed profiles of the homeless in Kansas through more than 1,000 interviews.

Since July 1999, the network has started four major multi-year projects, with three of them funded by the Kansas Health Foundation.

In one project it is working with Kansas State, the University of Kansas, Emporia State and Fort Hays State to coordinate media campaigns on "social norms" regarding drinking among college students. The campaigns tell students the "real truth" about drinking on their campus, based on extensive local research, which documents that most college students drink in moderation.

"The ads have created a buzz," says Meissen. "We’ve done focus groups, and we have yet to find a student at any of the four campuses that can’t recite the basic message" of drinking safely and in moderation like most of their peers.

The network is also continuing its work with mental health consumers, helping former consumers start organizations, funded by SRS, that help other mentally ill individuals. Network staffers are currently working with 17 Consumer Run Organizations, helping six of them get started in the past few months. It means a lot of traveling for Tiemeyer and other staffers. One day Tiemeyer might be in Hays, helping a CRO board understand its role versus staff roles, while on another day she might be at Parsons, helping staff there do a quarterly report.

In one project, the network is evaluating a new kind of leadership training being provided to 17 Kansas communities.

For decades, local chambers of commerce throughout the nation have sponsored leadership programs that frequently focus on networking and providing the 20-30 people involved in the group each year with information about the community. Last year, 17 Kansas communities decided they wanted something more from their programs and are working to create what are called "servant leaders."

In the past year, each community sent two people to two weeks’ worth of leadership training focused on learning styles, facilitating groups and creating shared visions. Eventually those people will be asked to share their training with others in their community, as a way of encouraging community involvement in solving issues.

"It’s a shift in thinking," says Scott Wituk, research coordinator. "Traditionally when you think of leaders, you think of a businessman, a CEO, the mayor. This initiative is set up to go beyond that and create broadbased leadership from stay-at-home moms to factory workers. Everyone has leadership potential."

Already some in the program are discovering that. One participant remarked on a survey: This leadership development "is more empowering, less hierarchical and ultimately more effective." Another responded that "people are hungry for this type of information."

"Communities all across the country are facing problems that are not going to be solved by government and are not going to be solved by programs," Meissen says. "They’re only going to be really dealt with by people in those communities coming together and finding ways to really solve those problems."

Coming together to make a community a better place is the impetus behind a new project for the network. It’s getting started on a new Kansas Health Foundation-supported project that will work with 20 or more communities that are interested in developing action plans to strengthen their communities to make them the best places to raise kids. The network will work with researchers at KU on this project.

It’s a learning place, too

Not only does the network provide community service and research opportunities, it also serves a teaching role, too. A number of undergraduate and graduate psychology students volunteer with the network. Several students have used their experiences with the network for papers or dissertations.

Some, like Wituk who started as a volunteer seven years ago as an undergraduate, remain with the network in paid positions.

"You just develop a heart for the organization," says Wituk, who has obviously found his niche. He plans to stay with the network after finishing his doctorate in community psychology in May – helping his co-workers change worlds.

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Inside WSU is published by the Office of University Communications for Wichita State University faculty, staff and friends on biweekly Thursdays during the fall and spring semesters. Items to be considered for publication should be sent to campus box 62 or amy.geiszler-jones@wichita.edu 10 days before publication.

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