It is not easy to raise a child with special needs, and many families all around the world are facing this issue. Based on what she experienced while volunteering in the special needs community while still a high school student, Julie Averbach (18) from New Jersey, noticed a lack of innovative resources to support the siblings of special needs children. So, this is what she did: with the help of a few artists, she created a witty comic book that helps brothers and sisters of kids with special needs to deal with every day challenges more easily. This project has brought her the Gold Award of GSUSA, and she has become one of only ten girls in the USA named a 2016 National Young Woman of Distinction. Today her comic books are used in schools and health institutions all around the USA, Canada, Brazil, England, and Australia.
Dear Julie, the Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) have named you a 2016 National Young Woman of Distinction, their most prestigious honor. Can you tell us more about what led to this and why you won the award?
The Gold Award is the highest honor that a Girl Scout can achieve, similar to the Eagle Scout award for Boy Scouts. It involves planning and executing a creative community service initiative that will have a sustainable impact. Out of all the Gold Award recipients, GSUSA selects ten each year to be National Young Women of Distinction (NYWOD). I am incredibly honored to say that I was chosen as one of the 2016 NYWODs based on my Gold Award project, a comic book to support the siblings of special needs children and to promote emotional intelligence.
What was your inspiration for writing this unique comic book?
In the ninth grade, I read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a graphic novel that captured a young girl’s perspective on the Iranian Revolution. This material got me thinking about comic books as a tool for therapy and social activism. Though I did not have a lot of prior experience with comics, I knew that the visual component of my project would aid me in telling a story that words alone could not.
Do you know any people who have siblings with special needs, and what do you think are their biggest struggles in everyday life?
Based on my family relationships and my experiences volunteering in the special needs community, I noticed a lack of innovative resources to support siblings of individuals with special needs. Since many special needs parents must dedicate their time and energy toward their special needs loved ones, the perspectives of other family members are often overlooked. As a Girl Scout, when you notice an issue, your instinct is to take action and form a plan to address it. In this case, my goal was to encourage these siblings to express their emotions – both good and bad – more openly, and to feel comforted in the fact that they are not alone.
Where did you get the inspiration for writing the six stories in your comic book?
I drew inspiration from family members, friends, and the special needs siblings I have interacted with. The stories, grounded in personal experience, are designed to capture both the negative (fear, anger, worry, resentment) as well as the positive (maturity, compassion, empathy) parts of the special needs sibling experience. After writing and creating basic sketches for these six stories, I collaborated with three artists from the renowned Kubert School, which specializes in Cartooning and Graphic Art. These talented artists – Petterson Oliveria, Vanessa Solis, and Dov Smiley – brought my stories to life and helped to give the resource a more professional appeal.
What was the first institution that reacted positively to what you did and recommended printing the material?
Since printing 8,000 copies of my comic book overseas, I have been completely amazed and overwhelmed with the response. The first institution to pilot Adventures from My World was the Rutgers University Social Skills Program, a sibling support group run through the Rutgers Department of Applied Psychology. It was incredibly exciting to have Rutgers implement my comic book as part of the group’s formal curriculum and to see siblings relate to my stories. More recently, I have worked with Rutgers to provide interactive workshops where siblings can discuss their connections to the resource and then draw their own stories.
How many institutions – and which ones – are using this comic book today?
Adventures from My World has been embraced by sibling support groups, hospitals, universities, special needs organizations, comic book stores, private psychology practices, libraries, and learning resource centers in 18 U.S. states and also Canada, Brazil, England, and Australia.
Do you cooperate with any of the European educational institutions or hospitals? And is AFMW about to be translated into Spanish and Portuguese?
Adventures from My World has officially gone international! Outside of the U.S., the comic book is currently being distributed in Canada, Brazil, England, and Australia. In order to expand my project’s impact even further, I am now working on Spanish and Portuguese translations of the first story (my personal favorite, and the one siblings of special needs children most often say they can relate to).
Can you tell us more about the feedback you got? What were the reactions of the siblings this was written for?
One of my favorite parts about distributing the comic book has been connecting with individual siblings and witnessing their reactions to the stories. Visiting sibling support groups with my comic has been a humbling experience, as I have watched many siblings open up about their most difficult experiences – sometimes even for the first time. They often tell me that they appreciate the comic book’s authenticity and that they believe others will be more understanding of their situation after reading it. Adventures from My World certainly does not represent every sibling’s experience. But the fact that my words have helped some to feel comforted, relieved, and understood means everything to me. It only makes me want to work harder and do more.
Have you, maybe, inspired some of the professionals who deal with emotional intelligence and mental health to give you more ideas on how to expand this project and produce additional creative publications of this type, so they can be widely used?
Other than comforting special needs siblings and trying to make their voices heard, one of my goals with Adventures from My World was to create a proof of concept for comic book therapy. The reactions and feedback that I have received support the efficacy of the comic book medium in fostering the open communication of emotions. In many cases, I have found, it is easier for individuals to explain how they relate to someone else’s story than to come out and talk about the challenges they personally face. The discussion questions I included in the back of the book also help to ease this conversation and show siblings that they are not isolated in their experiences. Moving forward, I certainly hope that mental health professionals will embrace the power of geek culture and that comic books will be used to explore a wider range of social issues like divorce, terminal illness, etc.
What are your plans for the future?
Earning my Gold Award has definitely influenced my areas of interest and the type of work that I would like to do in the future. As I start college next year, I hope to continue exploring art therapy, the power of comic books to promote social change, and psychology. For now, I will continue working to expand my project’s impact and to encourage younger Girl Scouts to pursue their own take-action projects. I want to show them that with grit, passion, and resilience, they can accomplish any goal they set their minds to.
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