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Aug. 16, 2022

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Vancouver parents of children with special needs create community

Participants in support group make time for themselves through a guided creative collage workshop

By , Columbian staff writer
9 Photos
A finished card at a guided creative collage workshop for a group of women who are parents or caregivers of children with special needs. The creative process helps them work through their emotions.
A finished card at a guided creative collage workshop for a group of women who are parents or caregivers of children with special needs. The creative process helps them work through their emotions. (Steve Dipaola for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the sun shone warmly through the windows of St. Andrew Lutheran Church, illuminating a table strewn with photo clippings from magazines and other images. An adjacent table was prepared with individual settings of card stock, pens, scissors and glue.

An observer might conclude that the four women settling into chairs were about to enjoy an afternoon of crafting or scrapbooking. But they were about to embark upon a guided process called SoulCollage, an artful exercise in self-discovery adapted from the book “SoulCollage: An Intuitive Collage Process for Individuals and Groups” by Seena Frost.

All of the women who had gathered are mothers of young men who struggle with mental illness. St. Andrew has offered the Emotional Side of Parenting Children With Special Needs support group since the fall. It meets the second Sunday afternoon of each month.

“In this instance, the mothers of children with special needs are so busy with the logistics of their kids’ lives that there is little time left for them to deal with their own emotions,” said Patricia Skinner Patterson, a trained spiritual director who led the workshop.

Brenda, who preferred not to give her last name, said she is hopeful that the day’s exercise will help further her own wellness, as well as that of her 24-year-old son.


• Book: “SoulCollage Evolving: An Intuitive Collage Process for Self-Discovery and Community” by Seena Frost.

• Clark County Parent Coalition: Provides advocacy, education, training and information for those with disabilities and their families. 360-823-2247, info@ccparentcoalition.org

• Asperger-Autism Monthly Parent Support Group: Meets from 6 to 7 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month at The Arc of Southwest Washington Family Center, 6511 N.E. 18th St., Vancouver. 360-910-2321

“Anything I can do to help myself stay healthy so I can help him and get support for him and myself, that’s what I want to do.”

Laura, who also chose not to reveal her full name, has a 29-year-old son who lives with a roommate in another state.

“The hardest thing to do is to detach from him needing me,” she said. “I cry a lot.”

The workshop

During a SoulCollage activity, participants create cards incorporating images that represent an aspect of their personality or soul. The cards can be referred to again and again as one confronts life challenges or celebrates joyful events. A card bearing the image of a tree might later remind the holder of his or her strength and groundedness.

Patterson said she has led similar workshops for seven years. She introduced SoulCollage to Orchards-area St. Andrew when she led a grief workshop for the church after a mother of two children in the congregation had died.

“SoulCollage can be used in a variety of ways, mainly to get to know yourself better,” she said.

Patterson has created hundreds of cards for herself, and she said she refers to them from time to time for clarity and self-direction.

The Rev. Martha Maier of St. Andrew began the group in the fall. She said parenting a special-needs child such as her own 24-year-old son “is like parenting times two.

“Other support groups focus on the kids or a cycle of grief. We (parents of special-needs children) don’t have a lot of places to process our own emotions. This is a way to explore all those feelings.”

Patterson’s hope for the afternoon was that each woman would have a chance for her story to be heard and not judged, for the participants to feel an emotional release and to simply have two hours to nurture themselves.

“It’s my only place to interface with others who are going through this,” Maier said. “There’s no time to deal the emotions of it.”

Brenda added, “I feel like I’m always performing, putting up a front.”

Patterson led the group in a short list of ground rules for the exercise: No crosstalk. No “fixing” others’ problems. No taking others’ problems on.

The fundamental goal of the afternoon was allowing the women to set aside all other concerns to work on themselves within themselves.

The cards

The women sifted through the clippings, selecting images that spoke to them. They were instructed keep their focus on the present, resisting the urge to worry about what they should have done or what they should be doing at home.

Patterson said there is no right or wrong way to make a card, but it’s important to select images without thinking too much about them and just let the images find the participant.

“Choose images that speak to you. Get out of your head. Go with your heart,” Patterson said to them. “The images do not have text, because words will take you back to your head. Images speak to your heart. Just jump in and let the images speak for you later. Something will come.”

After selecting the images, the women silently cut them out, arranged them, then glued them to card stock. On the back of the card, they were instructed to write the words, “I am one who …” and then imagine the images on the card speaking to them to finish the sentence. Then she asked them to write down how the images described their emotions, uncovering what drew them to the image.

“The energy that goes into the cards allows you to be free,” said Patterson. “It’s a way to connect to your own inner wisdom.”


As the women finished making their cards and readied to share, they agreed that the time had flown, that they were unaccustomed to sitting for that amount of time in silence, let alone taking time to contemplate their inner life with a project that was all about them. They were amazed that for two hours they worked in silence, able to think of nothing but their inner lives rather than what they might make for dinner.

They concluded that the exercise was both enlightening and relaxing.

Patterson shared a card with a hummingbird image. On the back, she had written: “I am one whose heart beats fast. I am one who hurries quickly from one place to another.”

Brenda said her card reflected the gifts she believes she can offer her son, and that, “I can love myself despite my faults.” This revelation surprised her, she said. Typically, because she is an animal lover, she is drawn to their images, but she began to think more of herself in the process and chose more images of women.

Laura said the theme of her card was “hope,” adding, “I am one who will pull back and allow him to go on. I am grateful to be his mother, and wish only goodness and want only dreams and joy for him.”

Maier designed two cards with two very dissimilar themes.

Patterson asked her, “What if one card talked to the other card?”

Maier said, “It would say ‘Lighten up! It’s not as bad as it seems.’ ”

In closing, Patterson asked each woman to express where they would like to take what they’d learned in the workshop.

They each expressed the gratitude they had for the child they parent and a desire to share their cards with them. Laura said she wanted to share her card with her son, so he can see and internalize that he has gifts.

Brenda said, “I’ll take the card as a reminder my son is not a diagnosis and of the peace we all see in our child. It’s a blessing not everyone gets to see.”

Columbian staff writer

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