In April of 2017 the peer facilitators and alumni of Now and Next convened a conference, entitled, ‘By Families, For Families’. Like Now and Next itself, the conference was the first of its kind – an event arranged and run by families, for families. What made the Now and Next Alumni (NANA) Conference so powerful was that it was families who set the conference agenda, who presented the content, and who facilitated the discussion. It was our parents’ desire to make genuine and respectful connections with like-minded peers that provided the impetus for the conference. It was our families’ needs that dictated the conference subjects. And it was our parents themselves who provided the planning, marketing, graphic design, and substance.

The content of the conference was wide-ranging. Because Plumtree offers many avenues of support for families embarking on their NDIS journey, the focus of the NANA Conference deliberately was not on the NDIS (which rolled out for the Plumtree service area in July 2017). Nevertheless, many presentations on the day furnished parents with the skills they need to navigate the NDIS system, and were framed by families’ interests in the tools and understandings central to accessing the NDIS program.

The keynote presentation of the day thus focused on self-managing individual funding. But what mother, Lisa Ashford-Potter, and her adult son, Brenton, offered participants was not a dry economic exposition, but an uplifting and intelligent discussion of how their family utilized Brenton’s strengths, gifts, and interests to inform his funded formal and informal activities and supports. Conference participants were offered intimate access to a family who lives with hope and imagination, and to a mother and her son who dreamed big for the future, and then translated Brenton’s dreams into his lived reality. Brenton’s story as a disabled adult gave conference participants permission to vision for their own young child’s future: we were inspired, encouraged, and gladdened by the fullness of life that this man – supported by his family – has achieved.

The second session of the day was a ‘Q&A’ style panel on creating positive partnerships with health professionals and therapists. Throughout Now and Next itself, participants expressed a pervasive concern with the role of these professionals in our, and our children’s, lives, and the NANA Conference offered the opportunity to explore this topic more fully. A panel of parents and professionals answered questions submitted by the conference participants not only about how to initiate, foster, and maintain positive, productive, and respectful parent-professional relationships, but also about how to effect change within existing relationships, how to assert parental preferences, and how to ‘break up’ with a therapist. As the session concluded, parents were asked to record what was most important to them in their interactions with professionals, and these answers were collated into a position statement. At the end of the day, the position statement was presented to the participants for their approval, and is now available in two forms (full and brief). The position statement forms a basis for Plumtree’s own professional interactions with their families, and it is also being distributed widely in Australia and internationally.

After lunch, parallel sessions were offered on ‘best tools for best results’, and ‘activating other people for more effective outcomes’. In the former, participants were introduced to the concept of a ‘communication passport’ to facilitate communication between families and preschools, schools, and other institutions, and one parent shared her experiences with mind-maps to document goals and expectations within a positive framework. In the latter, participants were offered insight into how to use and prioritize informal supports creatively not only as an adjunct supplement, but as an active complement, to formal supports. Participants also heard from parents who have influenced their community to increase genuine inclusion and acceptance for their child with amazing results.

In Now and Next, participants were introduced to a customized and customizable iPad app, BookCreator, and they created a personalized book documenting their journeys and the foundational principles of the Now and Next program. BookCreator is a powerful, creative tool, and participants were interested in gaining more skills to utilize the app to its full capability, and to learn more potential uses for these eBooks. Thus, the early afternoon session of the conference focused solely on BookCreator, including innovative ways to use the app, a master class in beautifying and personalizing an eBook, and using BookCreator to write and use social stories.

The conference ended with a group reflection on how NANA could serve its members in the future, and best meet the needs of its peer network.

What was so invigorating about this conference was that it was deeply informed by a family-based, strengths-led paradigm. This framework wasn’t a stated prerequisite for the conference, but all the families who spoke on the day were passionate about leading our lives with our children’s strengths, gifts, and interests front and centre. There was a resounding acceptance of the idea that prioritizing a strengths-based model over the traditional deficits-based pathology of our children is the path to wellbeing and flourishing for ourselves, our children, and our families. The net effect was therefore a conference that was not only informative and productive, but intensely uplifting and hopeful.

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