The Power of Peer Support: Allison McGaver of Park Pals
Updated: Nov 20
You can hear the surprise and joy in Allison McGaver’s voice when you ask her about Park Pals’ success.
“Why would this many people be coming?” she rhetorically asked on the phone on a sunny Sunday morning in November. “Do they know it’s just me?”
Surprise at the positive response, but also anxiety. McGaver said she talks herself out of those worried thoughts every time she plans a Park Pals Pop-Up.
What is Park Pals?
According to the Park Pals website, the group is a free outdoor playgroup that offers music and movement activities for kiddos up to age 5 and their caregivers. McGaver wrote on the site that she hosts the group two to four times each month at a Southeast Wisconsin park.
McGaver said she knew when she started the group, that she could bring a Bluetooth speaker, bubbles and a few toys and mesmerize little ones with songs and activities. But Park Pals isn’t about the kids.
“This truly was a grass-roots mental health group for parents and caregivers,” she said.
McGaver said she receives messages before every pop-up from parents who want to join in, but are struggling and feel like they can’t take that first step to go.
Pride creeps into her voice when she marvels that “they showed up, not only for their kid, but for themselves.”
It’s what McGaver said she wishes she had done sooner.
Denying Her Scary Thoughts
McGaver gave birth to her son, Wes, 13 weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic began. She shares that he was born medically complex, without a clear diagnosis, which she was trying to navigate as a first-time mom.
"It was noon and I couldn’t stop crying. I remember holding my baby boy, wishing I was a better mama for him. I knew I needed help and community. "
“I would look up postpartum anxiety and postpartum depression and I would talk myself out of them,” explained McGaver.
She related to symptoms like I can’t stop watching my child breathe while they sleep.
“Of course I am [watching him]! Wes was medically complex and he had a breathing thing. I was just being a mom,” she recalls thinking.
She remembers intrusive thoughts- scary or dark thoughts that terrify the person having them- about how having a baby would impact her relationship, and what would happen with Wes. She said she held onto every thought and feeling.
“I wish I could have told someone. I could have had help, and I just kept swallowing more and more of it,” McGaver said.
Pandemic Parenting a Complex Kid
McGaver explains that she and her husband decided going back to work 20 hours a week would be good for her mental health, a break from managing Wes’ medical care. Her first day was in the first week of March 2020. On her second day back, McGaver’s office shut down along with the rest of the world.
“We had to be so isolated because Wes had poor development of the upper respiratory system,” explains McGaver. “In so many Facebook groups, so many moms saying ‘I need a friend, I need something to do,” she recalls.
When it became safer to leave their home, McGaver said she went out in search of interaction and community. She decided to take Wes out to find the personal connection she and many others were looking for.
“I wasn’t getting what I needed as a caregiver. There was no interaction. Wes wasn’t fitting the mold of sitting down and participating,” she said.
McGaver said almost a year into the pandemic, she returned to her therapist of nearly 20 years in early 2021. They discussed the challenges of living through COVID-19 with a medically complex child and trying to find social connections in spaces that weren’t working for her or her family.
“I left there and I had this idea in the back of my head,” she remembers. “I was seeing all of these posts in mom groups- I need something to do, I need to interact, I need a safe space.”
She channeled her background in early childhood education and community organizing into an idea- a mission to build a community that she, and so many moms like her, needed.
Park Pals was born.
On the day McGaver launched the Facebook group, she said she watched in awe as the numbers ticked up. That first meetup had 35 parents. The latest pop-up had 150.
“It’s not meant to be exclusive,” she explained. “It’s not meant to have any barriers. You’re so anxious? Me too. Welcome to the club.”
The Power of Peer Support
Through Park Pals, McGaver said she has figured out that instead of waiting for your village to show up, you have to go out and find it.
“Open up and be vulnerable to say ‘I need you to be part of my village,’” she advises. That is the power of peer support.
“I found myself all over again. I have healed parts of myself I didn’t know needed healing by being able to share my story and having it help someone else. When you have a trusted peer and you can see yourself in them and believe them, that is the medicine that everybody needs,” she shares.