Finding a Natural Support System

When you face an obstacle, who do you reach out to for help? For many of us, the answer might feel easy: a parent, a sibling, a friend, a mentor. But the families we partner with often find no one to call on when they need practical advice, a last-minute babysitter, or simply a friendly ear.

Knowing that families are more likely to thrive when they have a social safety net, FamilyWise helps families identify and tap into their own network of natural supports—from neighbors to friends to family. Alongside FamilyWise staff, these “informal” supports become vital members of a team that builds a healthy home environment for families.

A deep bench of support

Bright Beginnings and High-Fidelity Wraparound are two programs that put special emphasis on natural supports.

Ademir Escobar-Bonilla

Ademir Escobar-Bonilla

True to its name, Wraparound links a team of professional staff with a “deep bench” of natural supports to wrap a circle of care around system-involved youth and their families. Youth Services Manager Ademir Escobar-Bonilla shares the story of a mother of eight who was not only parenting on her own, but also struggling with substance use. Through our Wrap program, FamilyWise learned she had a brother in Iowa—but they were estranged. Knowing the value of natural supports, she began to picture a path to reuniting with her brother, and eventually he came to stay with her in Minnesota.

This revitalized relationship, especially with a family member who shares so much history, has helped the mother overcome her substance use and know she has someone in her corner for the long haul.

Natural supports can also unlock solutions that program staff would never discover on their own. In another example from Wraparound, FamilyWise engaged the participant’s older sister as part of the youth’s support team. Through our conversations, she identified that when her brother showered in the morning, he was less likely to make it to school. If he showered the night before, he was always on time. This small tweak to his schedule made a big difference, all thanks to a family member.

Heidi Langeberg

Heidi Langeberg

Heidi Langeberg Mentor Specialist Heidi Langeberg explains the essential role informal supports play in FamilyWise’s Bright Beginnings program. Bright Beginnings matches young parents (and parents-to-be) with a volunteer mentor from the community. “We explain to young parents that their mentor will be someone who can come in and offer support and be their friend and cheerleader,” says Heidi. “The mentor is there to guide them, to be a sounding board and a confidante.”

Heidi also speaks to how informal supports create a dynamic where program participants can practice the skill of asking for help—and how doing so helps their relationships grow. Importantly, the bond often evolves to become a two-way street, with mentees lending their own wisdom to mentors.

Both Heidi and Ademir also stress the value of families being able to rely on natural supports over time, a concept FamilyWise CEO Ann Gaasch captures in this story about a Bright Beginnings mentor-mentee pair. “This particular mentee grew incredibly close to the mentor’s whole family,” Ann recalls. The mentor’s family even attended her mentee’s wedding, and the mentor became godparent to the mentee’s child. “This young parent got not just a mentor but an extended family,” says Ann. “That shows the long-term connection that is possible. Social services will end, but natural supports can be lifelong.”