This is a guide for assisting professionals in designing and implementing a weekend retreat for kinship caregivers and their children. These retreats provide a safe, stress-free setting for family members to spend time together and strengthen their relationships. The retreat setting is removed from the system of social service agencies that many relative caregiver families deal with weekly. Families participating in the retreats tend to appreciate not having to think or worry about treatment, therapy, or referrals. They are not there as “families in need.” They are simply families spending some quality time together. As one grandparent put it after participating in a retreat organized by Penn State Cooperative Extension in 2008, “It’s been a weekend where we’re all the same – we’re all normal.” Another grandparent summed up the impact on her family, “We have just become a complete family.”
Retreat Goal: To provide a stress-free setting, over the course of a weekend (start time Friday evening and ending on Sunday Noon) for kinship family members to spend quality time together and to identify and build upon their strengths through participation in a series of shared educational and recreational activities.
Target Population: The retreat is designed for families with grandparents and other relatives raising children. The children should be at least 3 years old.
- Provide kinship care family members with a family-oriented recreational experience.
- Strengthen the communication skills of kinship care family members.
- Enhance kinship care family members’ knowledge in relevant subject areas, such as parenting techniques, dealing with the legal system, reducing stress, and finding and accessing needed services.
- Establish a network of kinship care families to provide information (e.g., issues of services, legal matters, etc.) and family-to-family support.
Start to plan early. At least one year in advance of the retreat is not too soon to begin planning. One or even two years may be needed to reserve a retreat facility. Funding sources may also only accept proposals at specified times throughout a year. Once a date is established, you can begin early marketing and publicity for the retreat; for example, a “Save the Date” announcement lets people learn about the retreat and gives them time to develop their own plans to participate. A strong marketing effort will send a message to the public that your organization is serious about providing services for kinship families.
Lay the groundwork
Develop proposal and budget. Grandparent caregivers face a number of personal concerns, including loss of time for themselves, isolation from friends, and the many challenges associated with suddenly becoming a parent to their grandchildren. In a focus group study conducted with grandparents who are raising grandchildren by the Grandkin Raising Grandkids Program of Generations Together of the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State Cooperative Extension, participants identified respite as one of their greatest needs in raising their grandchildren. This was the stimulus for holding our first kinship family retreat and further refining the retreat model in subsequent years.
We have learned that the biggest challenge in conducting these retreats is finding funds to cover the actual costs for conducting the retreat, since many kinship families will not be able to afford registration fees that meet the full cost of participation. The retreats are supported by grants, in-kind contributions, and a reduced family registration fee. Charging a nominal registration fee gives families the choice to participate and make a personal commitment in support of the retreat.
We suggest that retreat planning groups establish 3 years as the minimum age requirement for grandchildren’s participation. The rationale for this recommendation is threefold: (1) most retreat facilities do not have lodging options that can accommodate babies and toddlers comfortably and safely, (2) most county-based Extension offices do not have staff or resources to provide quality care for children under 3 years of age, and (3) having the responsibility of caring for these young children might prevent grandparents and older grandchildren from fully participating and enjoying the retreat experience.
Once a budget is developed, begin to approach potential funders and other supporters. The largest expense is likely to be renting the facility and providing lodging for the kinship care families. Use the expertise and experience of staff and volunteers from your organization and other community services for programs and activities. Additional monies may be necessary to cover the other expenses. ( See Appendix A for a sample retreat budget.)
Establish a planning committee. Early in the planning process, establish a retreat planning committee. Committee members can be recruited from a wide range of organizations, including the local Area Agency on Aging, Salvation Army, kinship support groups, libraries, Head Start programs, churches, civic groups, local political leaders’ offices, and family support programs. This committee is needed to play many roles. It is a vehicle for publicizing the retreat, finding grants and donations, recruiting participants, and developing the retreat agenda. In terms of organizing the work of the planning committee, we found it effective to have regular (quarterly) meetings and to communicate via e-mail or telephone between meetings. When committee members are fully engaged in the planning process, they are more likely to attend the retreat and provide needed assistance in facilitating activities and helping with on-site logistics.
Establish communication network. You can readily establish a communication network by creating an electronic mailing list to make contacts via e-mail. However, not all committee members and retreat staff and volunteers may have access to electronic communication. For those persons, it may be necessary to use surface mail or fax machine and telephone.
Select retreat facility. We recommend selecting a facility that is away from day-to-day routines and distractions and which provides a stress-free, peaceful environment. Availability of quality recreational opportunities for family members is another important criterion. Consideration for handicap accommodations is critical in evaluating potential sites since some family members may need these to be able to fully participate. Consider these needs when comparing site costs and what is included in these costs.
Facilities usually require you to sign a contract. Follow your organization’s policies and procedures for this.
Obtain financial support and contributions. As mentioned earlier, applying for grants should be done early because many foundations accept proposals only at specific times. Explore several grant opportunities. Be specific in your request and ask for what you would like to have. Provide potential funders with opportunities to sponsor the entire retreat or specific parts of the retreat. Explain what you are aiming to accomplish and how their participation will help in reaching that goal.
You may be able to find financial and other forms of support (e.g., food items, craft supplies, speakers, and welcome kit items) from the following groups and organizations: AARP, local Area Agencies on Aging, family caregiver support programs, state departments of welfare, state departments of community and economic development, Cooperative Extension, local businesses, local representatives’ offices, and community organizations.
Prepare publicity and registration materials. Develop a plan for publicizing the event. Use your planning committee to provide suggestions about how to publicize the retreat. Also, network with all organizations that run kinship care support groups and provide other services for kinship care families. A strategy for accessing the mailing lists of such organizations is to acknowledge their involvement and support in the publicity and registration flyers that are developed.
Decide how you will register families for the retreat. The registration flyer that is developed and distributed to register families should request the names of all family members attending and the ages of the children. After receiving registration forms, send a letter to families that provides information about retreat location, emergency phone number, what to bring to the retreat, retreat activity highlights, and transportation information. ( See Appendix B for a sample flyer and Appendix C for a sample registration letter.)
Secure Insurance. Review your contract and organizational policy to learn about insurance requirements. Purchase an event policy if required.
Develop retreat agenda. Focus on the needs of the grandparents (even though other family members may be included) and plan family activities and workshops for the grandchildren. Grandchildren have specific needs and interests of their own, so pay attention to designing activities that appeal to them. Your retreats may evolve to include a mixture of grandparent-only, grandchild-only, and full-family activities.
The agenda should include educational learning experiences for age-diverse audiences, free family time for families, and a series of organized family activities. Time should also be built in for the family to experience the unique recreational opportunities that the retreat facility offers, which is a drawing card for many families who do not have access to these types of activities or live in settings where they do not feel comfortable letting their children play freely out-of-doors. At one retreat, which included a large number of grandchildren in their teens, both grandparents and teens requested the option of some free time to just hang out with their peers with no structured activity. This could be an alternative during the free family time, when board games, music and musical instruments, sports equipment, and other resources are available for families to use. (See Appendix D for a sample agenda.)
Identify speakers and workshop presenters. Use organizational resources and those of partnering organizations for several of the adult and youth workshops and retreat activities. This is a valuable in-kind contribution. The retreat usually has a keynote speaker to open the retreat on Saturday morning, followed by workshops. Depending on your budget, you can use paid speakers or seek speakers sponsored by their employers. Popular workshop topics for adults include discipline and guidance, parenting children with special needs, financial management, stress management, container gardening, managing anger, and legal issues. Topics for youths may include decision-making and problem-solving, self-esteem development, caring for others, crafts, gardening, stress management and other health topics, and active citizenship.
Identify staff for activities. In addition to using your own resources, the facilities may provide staff for recreational activities offered by the retreat facility. The staff may be able to lead swimming, archery, ropes courses, climbing walls, fishing, canoeing, nature hikes, and scavenger hunts and facilitate evening campfires. Staff for other family activities may be hired from outside or recruited as volunteers. For example, at one retreat, two individuals were hired from a local dance group to lead a “Dancing with the Stars” family activity. These individuals provided music, taught the families some dance steps, led a family demonstration and practice session, and ran a dance contest.
Arrange for transportation. Extension may be able to provide bus transportation from the Extension office to the retreat site at no cost to families. Family members may also choose to arrange for their own transportation. Many of the participating families may use bus transportation. The cost of transportation should be included in the retreat budget.
Make housing assignments. When making housing assignments, consider the physical ability of family members to be able to move from one site to another and place those with limited mobility closest to the center of activities. Another consideration is to place families having children of similar age and the same sex in rooms of the same family house or in neighboring living quarters.
Make meal/snack selections. The facility may allow you to select from a variety of food choices for all meals. They may have to be flexible with requests for special meals, such as the Sunday brunch. Some facilities have a camp store where between-meal snacks can be purchased. Extension may provide snacks between Saturday afternoon activities and at specific family activities, such as evening campfires. Some of these snacks can be donated or purchased. All food selections should be based on nutrition, health, and cultural and family favorites.
During the Retreat
Check in. Arrange to have families greeted by staff or volunteers upon arrival. This is a good time to give families welcome packets that include a map of the facility, a retreat agenda, retreat rules, and miscellaneous items. Then have families check into their rooms and receive some free time to explore the retreat facility before orientation/dinner time.
Retreat Orientation. Depending on the time available, the orientation can be part of the welcome event that includes an evening meal or substantial snack. At the orientation, have a member of the staff go over the retreat rules and remind participants that the retreat is a family event, not a time to forget about the grandchildren. The grandparents are responsible for their children at all times. ( See Appendix E for a list of the retreat rules developed for a previous retreat.)
Welcome Event. Provide an activity that gives families the opportunity to meet other families and become better acquainted. Extension has many resources for choosing appropriate warm-up and team-building activities.
Family Banner Kits. One of the highlights of the retreat could be a “family banner” activity for which families receive a kit containing a rectangle of white cotton fabric and markers in their welcome bags. At the orientation, explain the goals and procedures of the family banner project. During the retreat, ask each family to design a family banner to present and display at the closing Family Celebration. The banner will tell a story about their family. The family may work on the banner during family time or other free time during the retreat. Additional craft materials (sequins, yarn, glitter, fabric swatches, glue sticks, scissors) are available at stations set up for banner preparation. An interesting aspect of this activity is that it gives families a chance to discuss issues related to family identity, and this often results in a greater sense of family unity and pride. This is particularly important for kinship families with members who have experienced upheaval and are struggling to adapt to new family dynamics.
Family Celebration. The Family Celebration occurs on the last day of the retreat. You may want to hire presenters or ask volunteers to perform songs and engage families in singing together. The celebration could end with a parade of family banners (see above), short presentations associated with each banner, and a brunch.
Family Time. Make sure to reserve some unstructured family time on the agenda. This will give families a chance to take part in impromptu games, to visit the playground, to visit with other families, to work on family banners, or simply to rest up for the next planned activity.
Meals. See if the facility will allow you to serve family-style meals. If possible, have each family take turns serving as table hosts, arriving a few minutes early to set the table. During the meal, the host family gets the food for the table and is responsible for clearing the table following the meal.
Recreation Time. Plan a wide range of recreational activities, including some that reinforce the learning objectives of the retreat. For example, ropes courses and climbing walls (as available) may be integrated into self-confidence and team-building workshops for teens.
Retreat Evaluation. Evaluation methods may include observation (and content analysis) of family banners and recording of family presentations, individual and family feedback from participation in workshops, “listening posts” during the retreat, and surveys at the completion of the retreat. ( See Appendix F for a copy of the post retreat evaluation questionnaire used in a previous retreat.)
Room inspections. If possible, have a staff member inspect rooms as they are vacated to check for left items or unreported damage. In the retreat rules, families are asked to report damage as it occurs.
Communicate with Families. If possible, keep in touch with families, letting them know about other programs and available resources that may be of interest to them. Follow-up activities also serve to help families continue to reflect upon the skills that they learned at the retreat and tap into the broader network of support that exists to support kinship families.
- Msuil, C. M., & Ahmad, M. (2002). Health of grandmothers: a comparison by caregiver status. Journal of Aging and Health, 14, 96-121.
- Waldrop, D. & Weber, J. A. (2001). From grandparent to caregiver: The stress and satisfaction of raising grandchildren. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Human Services, 82, 461-472.