As the mother of a child with developmental disabilities, Rena* often felt overwhelmed by her marathon-like schedule of shuttling her daughter to therapists, advocating for her at school, meeting with her caseworker, and pleading with the insurance company to cover the therapies that her daughter so badly needed.

Often, she felt that her financial burdens—between private-school tuition, therapy and medical bills—were too much. She often felt worried about her future. At night, she lay awake in bed wondering how she and her husband would manage.

They have no idea how lucky they are, and absolutely no sense of what I’m going throughWorst of all was the pain she encountered whenever well-intentioned friends prattled on about the relatively minor travails of their typically functioning children. “They would talk about being depressed that their son is leaving for college, or they’d complain about the tablecloths at their daughter’s wedding, and the whole time I’m biting my lip, thinking about how my daughter will never graduate college or get married,” she said. She knew they didn’t intend to hurt her, yet their words still stung. “They have no idea how lucky they are, and absolutely no sense of what I’m going through,” she said.

After years of feeling alone, Rena finally found a haven where she could vent her feelings: a support group for the mothers of disabled children. It was one of the few places where she felt understood, she said.

The support group was launched four years ago by Yachad: The National Jewish Council of Disabilities, in an effort to help Jewish mothers of special-needs children. Yachad, Hebrew for “together,” was founded by the Orthodox Union in 1983 to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities within the larger Jewish community. The support group has met weekly in homes around New Jersey for the past several years.

Group facilitator Chani Herrmann, who is a social worker, says that as much as the women have gained from her knowledge and expertise, she has gained inspiration from their strength and warmth.

“The women learn from one another, share resources, and gain strength and knowledge from each other’s personal experiences,” said Herrmann. “It’s really beautiful.”

Among the topics discussed at the gatherings are school placements for their children, marriage and communication, the stress of having multiple children with special needs, financial stressors, and long-term planning for their children’s needs, said Herrmann.

The participants say that they look forward to the group sessions. “It is a safe place to come and be honest about the things they struggle with,” she said.

In addition, it’s a warm environment where parents can celebrate accomplishments with one another in a special way. “We have shared important milestones with one another; births, bar mitzvahs, graduations. Nothing is taken for granted—every event in their lives is an important one, and their child’s success in school or at a job is celebrated by the whole group.”

While participants of such programs say they learn a great deal from the program facilitators and from one another about navigating their way through the educational and social-services maze, one of the biggest benefits, they say, is that it alleviates their sense of isolation.

The attendees of the support group range in age and in their level of Jewish observance, and their children suffer from a broad spectrum of disabilities—including autism, developmental and cognitive delays, and ADHD—yet their core issues are the same.

“If you have a child with special needs, you experience similar things, whether it’s grief over losing the dream of having a ‘perfect child,’ or dealing with challenging school systems and difficult grandparents and communities that make them feel excluded,” said Dr. Jeff Lichtman, the national director of Yachad.

One of the biggest benefits, they say, is that it alleviates their sense of isolationYachad also runs a fathers’ support group that meets on a monthly basis in Teaneck, New Jersey. The men’s group offers the fathers an opportunity to learn from each other and provide each other with support, and gives them a place where they can be understood, said Lichtman.

Such a place is essential to getting through the daily rigors of raising a special child. “No one else really understands the stress, the constant pressure, the social awkwardness, and the extraordinary effort we must make in order to get through the day,” Rena said.

Lori*, a Teaneck mother of several multiply disabled children, said: “It’s good to connect with other mothers who share the same issues. There’s a lot of empathy, and it provides a good social outlet.”

The world at large often seems oblivious to their needs and those of their children, said Rena. “It’s wonderful to have a group of women we can rely on to hold our hands and accept us. There’s no one who can relate to our situation, except those of us who are in it.”

* Names have been changed to protect their privacy.