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You may have heard of them, you may have even been to them but are you making the most out of them? Gluten free support groups can be very useful and a great addition to your gluten free lifestyle. The trick is knowing how to make the most of them. Support group meetings can vary in terms of structure and content. All of the group meetings I have been to have consisted of an informative guest speaker, usually a leader in the GF community, informal mingling with other attendees and samples from a GF food vendor.
Are there certain things you should keep in mind in order to maximize the benefits of attending? Absolutely!
Here are my suggestions that I hope you adopt before attending your next, or first, GF support group meeting.
1. Bring business cards – one of the biggest emotional challenges of having Celiac Disease or gluten intolerance is the inevitable, yet probably only occasional, sense of being alone. Finding a gluten free support group will show you that you are not alone. Seeing it is not enough though, you need to feel it. To do this, make some gluten free friends! Bringing business cards to meetings makes it very easy for you to exchange contact information with the other attendees.Typically, the mingling at meetings is very informal. You are unlikely to have a table to write on or pens and paper for trading contact info. In addition to lack of resources, you may not have the time to have the exchange of contact information in the brief minutes allotted to mingling, especially if you have somewhere you need to be after the meeting. Business cards are quick, to the point and a great way to help you remember someone! If you don’t have business cards, get some personal contact cards made! They are very inexpensive to order and super fun to design at www.vistaprint.com
2. Ask the right questions – at many GF support group meetings, group leaders schedule a guest speaker to come educate the group about various aspects of the gluten free diet. At the Oakland Celiac Support Group I have heard from speakers such as Dr. Emily Nock, a primary care physician and Celiac Advocate at Kaiser Permanente, and Ann Whelan, the Editor-in-Chief of Gluten Free Living magazine. You want to capitalize on your opportunity to ask questions, especially considering how incredibly talented and qualified the sources at meetings tend to be. But, what to ask? Avoid overly personal medical questions. Though the speaker may be a physician,they aren’t going to be able to give you solid medical advice based on one question in the middle of a group lecture. In addition, asking personal medical questions takes away from the group’s ability to benefit from the speakers advice. Ask more general questions that aren’t overly specific to your personal medical status. For example, don’t ask a 3-4 minute long question that requires you reciting your medical history. Instead, ask questions like “what is the possibility of people finding a cure for Celiacs? What would a cure look like?” or “What is the current status on GF labeling laws and how do you think they will impact my health?”
3. Get to know at least one person really well each time – This goes along with the idea of bringing business cards to the meetings. Try and establish a genuine connection with at least person at each meeting. Of course, you won’t have time to get to know everyone which is why having business cards on hand is very helpful. Try chatting with the person sitting next to you. Try looking for someone who has a similar lifestyle of life context as you do. For example, if you are the mom of a Celiac kid then look for another Celiac parent to get to know. If you are a very busy, fast paced business person look for someone who has a similar job or similar job demands.
4. Introduce yourself to the guest speaker -At the time when I heard Dr. Emily Nock speak at the Oakland Celiac Support Group, I was just beginning to consider the medical field as a potential career goal. After her presentation, I introduced myself and asked her if I could shadow her medical practice. Although I did not have a personal contact card, Dr. Nock took down my contact information. I shadowed Dr. Nock for a full semester while at Cal and two years later, Dr. Nock is both my friend and my mentor. Never miss an opportunity to network with people in the gluten see community, especially GF leaders.
5. Follow up – This is my biggest piece of advice. Follow up with the people that you meet at these meetings. Shoot them an email or give them a call next Saturday morning. Make sure that these connections don’t get lost in the hustle and bustle of your life. The friendships and connections you make at these meetings can really improve your gluten free lifestyle. There are a ton of different ways you can follow up with people: Linked In, Twitter, Facbeook, email etc. Choose whichever one is best for you!
If you don’t have a GF support group, I highly suggest finding one! There are a ton of resources for you on the web. Check out the Celiac Disease Foundation’s extensive list of GF support groups across the nation. National Foundation for Celiac Awareness also has a database dedicated to this topic. For more support group options try signing up for www.meetup.com. This website is a social media site where people can form and search for groups based on their interests. In addition to these resources you can always google your city and “gluten free support group” to find contact information for a group in your area.