Virtual benefit for special needs nonprofit helps area families

Family Voices of Minnesota will host its 11th annual benefit on Friday, Sept. 30. The group is a statewide, parent-run organization providing information, resources and peer-to-peer support for families throughout the state and locally who have children with special needs or disabilities.

BRAINERD — Family Voices of Minnesota helps families raising children with disabilities and extra needs across the state and in the Brainerd lakes area.

The St. Paul-based nonprofit’s 11th annual Connecting Hearts, Raising Voices Benefit starts at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30, and will continue to be online for a second year, so all can participate.

“Typically, when you're raising a child that has disabilities or extra needs, there are just a lot more questions that families have. They might have questions about, ‘Are we getting the right support school? Am I seeing the right specialists?’” Candi Seil said.

Seil is the development and public relations consultant for Family Voices of Minnesota, a statewide, parent-run organization providing free information, resources and peer-to-peer support.

Candi Seil
Candi Seil
Contributed / Candi Seil

According to the nonprofit, 1 in 5 Minnesota families with children have a child with a disability or chronic health condition, so connecting with another parent is critical to know where to look for resources and services for children and youths.


“One of the words that we like to use is we support families who are raising children with ‘extra needs.’ So, for example, if your child has a behavioral condition or if your child has a medical complexity … really anything that they're getting kind of support or services,” Seil said.

Author, playwright and storyteller Kevin Kling will emcee Friday night’s virtual fundraiser for his fourth year. Kling is often featured on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered.”

Attendees of the benefit will also hear from Family Voices of Minnesota staff about the importance of peer support for parents raising children with disabilities and extra needs and from parents who have received services from Family Voices of Minnesota.

“Sometimes an educator or sometimes another parent just knows what you're experiencing,” Seil said. “They'll have the lived experience that you might not be able to get by reading a textbook or talking with a doctor or a health care provider.”

Friday’s fundraising event will also be co-hosted by local actor Joel Liestman, who is a dad to a son with a rare genetic condition and a Family Voices of Minnesota parent support navigator.

“Family Voices in Minnesota has webinars and support groups that meet monthly and so we actually have one right in the Brainerd lakes area, and we have staff that are literally located throughout the state of Minnesota,” Seil said.

Organizers of the Connecting Hearts, Raising Voices Benefit hope to raise $50,000. Funds raised will help Family Voices of Minnesota continue its programs that provide individual assistance and support for families and children throughout the state.

“The really cool thing about being a virtual organization is you can join one of our groups that has members from across the state of Minnesota or you can go to that Brainerd area group specifically,” Seil said.


The event’s entertainment includes a talk by Kate Swenson, a mom, advocate and speaker who is the author of “Forever Boy” and creator of the popular blog, “Finding Cooper’s Voice: The Secret World of Autism.”

Seil said of Family Voices of Minnesota, “There are 184 volunteer support parents that are all trained and they're located throughout the state of Minnesota, and so we can connect you to a family just like yours or another parent who’s kind of got that same lived experience.”

Attendees will also hear from Mariella Elm, a singer, writer and high school student with a rare disability. She and her dad Tommy Barbarella, acclaimed keyboardist to Prince and Nick Jonas, are writing a musical titled “The Girl Who Cried Different” about a student with special needs.

“Recently, we just had a back-to-school webinar and talked about what to do if your child has one of the IEPs, or individual education plans,” Seil said. “We helped parents feel like a partner in the IEP meeting who are trying to figure out how they can advocate for their child's needs and make sure that they're getting their child's needs met.”

Family Voices of Minnesota is also hosting an online, silent auction of items from donors across the state of Minnesota and elsewhere. The auction will close after the benefit Friday.

To find out more information about the event and to register to attend online, visit .

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at . Follow him on Twitter at .

I cover the community of Wadena, Minn., and write features stories for the Wadena Pioneer Journal. The weekly newspaper is owned by Forum Communications Co.
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