The ripple effects of having a child with a chronic illness or disability are often felt by the entire family, especially siblings.
At least that’s what pediatrician Brian Sheridan has found. During his residency at Albany Medical Center in 2005, Sheridan noticed that when children would come in for chemotherapy or other treatments, it would be a family affair with parents and siblings often in tow. He noticed that the siblings were often upset or frustrated, so he decided to do some research.
“I found that 40% of siblings who have a brother or sister with a chronic illness of some sort will have some sort of mental health illness themselves,” Sheridan said.
He decided to do something about it and began to plan events at local YMCAs, at which children with siblings who have chronic illnesses could come together and talk about their experiences.
“It grew so quickly within the first year,” Sheridan said. Eventually he brought on more social workers, volunteers and others who helped to turn the initiative into a full-fledged nonprofit known as the Bus Stop Club.
The organization holds weekly meetings in Albany, Saratoga and Schenectady counties for kids ages 5 through 15. Depending on the needs of the participants, the Bus Stop Club educates siblings on what their brothers and sisters are going through. It also helps with coping mechanisms.
“There’s also the emotional component, where kids are jealous, believe it or not, that their sibling has an illness and that the sibling with the illness gets treated better by the parents. There’s that perception, so we have a component to help the kids cope … and then teaching them how to deal with their own emotions when they feel that way,” Sheridan said.
Perhaps most importantly, the Bus Stop Club gives kids a break, as the Gravell family of Rotterdam can attest.
“I’ve been able to bring my whole family to events thanks to the Bus Stop Club that I would not have been able to without,” said Erikka Gravell, mother of four daughters, including two with chronic illnesses.
Over the years that her children have been club members, they’ve gone to Six Flags New England, Siena basketball games, Tri-City ValleyCats baseball games and on Santa Magical Express ride during the holidays. The latter is a longtime favorite for Shaeli, Gravell’s youngest daughter.
“I’ve found that kids who have someone sick in the family look forward to rituals and routines. So the Santa [Express] is kind of like a ritual for us,” Gravell said.
Taking trips with the Bus Stop Club isn’t as stressful as it can be either on their own or with other groups.
“There’s an unstated understanding and an acceptance. We know that we’re never going to have to explain about her disability, where when we’re at some other activities with more typical families, for lack of a better word, you always feel like you have to explain something,” Gravell said.
Beyond the special events, the meetings are a haven for Gravell’s youngest daughter.
“[Shaeli] loves going to the meetings as well. It’s a safe place for her. She doesn’t have to explain even how she’s feeling about having two siblings that have a lot of needs. It’s all about her. The focus is on her. The staff knows her and greets her. She really looks forward to that.”
Regular meetings became crucial during the height of the pandemic. Amy Severson, program director of the Bus Stop Club, helped to bring the programming online in April of 2020 and made sure that there were regular Sibling Sessions — where kids could work on crafts or have trivia nights together. Families signed up in advance for the Zoom sessions they were interested in, then Severson sent out a box of supplies for the activities.
“I don’t know at the beginning if I thought about how difficult it would be for these kids because a lot of them have a lot of stress in their homes, whether it be a sibling with a mental illness or a physical illness, or autism, behavioral issues,” said Severson. “I heard from a lot of families and it was very, very difficult. So I think they looked forward to our Sibling Sessions, even though they were virtual. They were well attended and the kids seemed to love them. They loved getting mail, too. Every month to get that package, sometimes they would win a prize and they’d get that in the mail. It was really fun.”
The club also had to reimagine the summer camp it offers to kids each year.
“We started doing … these outdoor activities on Friday during the summertime where we could still keep our social distancing rules in effect but the kids could still be together and do stuff,” Sheridan said.
While the focus of the organization is on the siblings, through years of being involved in the Bus Stop Club Gravell has also found a support system unlike any other.
“Over the years, I’ve made so many friends and I’ve just realized every family there, they have their own unique issue. There was never any judgment,” Gravell said. “We just all understand each other. It’s a very unique type of support that I really have not been able to get anywhere else.”
Since founding the Bus Stop Club, Sheridan has enjoyed countless rewarding moments.
“Families are stressed when they have a brother or sister with an illness, and I mentioned it can lead to lots of problems,” Sheridan said.
In one session, a sibling spoke up about how her parents were separating and she was having a tough time, especially because she’d had to move out of her home and into an apartment, and her school bus passed her family’s previous home each day. After the meeting, a staff member from the Bus Stop Club let the child’s parent know about the situation.
“The mom said I had no idea but [my daughter] has been struggling terribly, worse than we had even predicted. So mom called the school district and they changed the bus route to make it easier for this child,” Sheridan said.
A month later, the child’s mental health had improved.
“The fact that she had a chance to express herself in a setting like that just made all the difference for her. So I always think that that’s a powerful story — that because of the Bus Stop Club she was able to share her emotions, not just about her siblings but about anything in her family that has been a struggle — and we have hundreds of stories like that,” Sheridan said.
For information on the Bus Stop Club, visit busstopclub.com.
Bus Stop Club
Year founded: 2005
Areas served: Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady counties
Mission: Provide preventative intervention for siblings of children with chronic illnesses and to provide bonding experiences for families.
What’s in a name? “I had to come up with a name when I first did it, and I was driving from my apartment at the time to work and trying to think of a name, and I happen to be in the city of Albany driving by a bus stop and I saw 10 kids waiting at the bus stop — some just standing there, some running around. What’s more normal than a bus stop? Just being kids at that point, everyone has memories of their own bus stop. The Bus Stop Club just sounds like a place where you can kind of hang out and be yourself.” — Brian Sheridan, Bus Stop Club founder