By David Slone
WARSAW — Everyone at one time in their life or another needs someone to lean on.
Organizers hope the third year of the Lost Sparrows Trauma Conference can help adoptive and foster parents, counselors, educators, pastors and others find people and organizations to lean on when dealing with children who have experienced trauma.
This year’s conference — with a theme of “Lean On Me” — is Friday and Saturday, Sept. 8-9, at Warsaw Community Church, 1855 S. County Farm Road, Warsaw. Check-in starts both days at 8 a.m., and each day starts with a keynote speaker.
Darren Gagnon, who co-founded Lost Sparrows with his wife Stacey Gagnon, said the location of the conference is one of the big changes from last year. Previously, it was held at the Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center on the Grace College campus.
“What we saw was fragmentation. So our group that comes ends up fragmented because at Grace College we were all over the campus. We want to try to create sort of a culture inside of the conference. We have different people coming, but the people who really need it – the foster and adoptive parents who really need to build that community – and that’s true about all of us, really – we want to have a space where everybody’s closer together so that we can foster that community-building with everybody that comes,” he said.
Darren said this year’s conference format is similar to last year’s.
Friday’s first keynote speaker will be at about 9 a.m. and will be Stacey Gagnon, a foster/adoption parent, educator and Lost Sparrows co-founder. There will be breakout sessions all day, and then the day closes out with Dr. Adam Sanez, CEO of Applied EQ Group and author and psychologist.
The third keynote speaker, on Saturday morning, is Tori Hope Petersen, best-selling author of “Fostered” and child welfare advocate.
Over the two days, there will be about 18 speakers – three from Notre Dame – and 30 breakout sessions.
“We have different tracks. We have a track for educators, with sessions designed for understanding trauma in the classroom. We have a track for foster/adopt parents – so, ‘how does this look in my home? How do I help my kids?’ And then we have a track for professionals – so if I’m a counselor, social worker, we have 12-plus hours approved by the National Association of Social Workers for that group. And then we have this year added a track for church staff, so if I’m a youth pastor or someone who works with children in the church, how does that look. We have a panel for mental health in the church – like how does the church engage in helping with a mental health situation in our society,” he explained.
Many people who attend the conference fall into more than one track.
“Everybody that comes can sign up for whatever breakout sessions they want. They don’t have to choose a track,” Darren said. All the sessions are described and there’s biographies of all the teachers that can be found on its website.
Foster parents can get about 15 hours of continuing education credit toward their license. Darren said that’s all approved through the Indiana Department of Child Services.
Registration can be done at any time up to the time of the conference, online or at the conference on Friday and Saturday. The sooner a person registers, however, the sooner they’ll be able to choose a breakout session they want to attend.
The sessions this year are longer than those in the past. Last year, they were about an hour. This year, the shortest ones are about 75 minutes. Darren said surveys last year indicated that attendees wanted longer sessions.
“We chose the tagline this year: A weekend of education, connection and community. You’ll see it on our stuff. So this is why the move to WCC will be so useful: Because we want to facilitate that connection and the community-building, which means we need to have flexibility in our schedule, so we modified the schedule in a way to facilitate the relationship component, not involving us, but just attendees being able to be with other attendees,” Darren said.
They will have food trucks on site to provide lunch. There will be a big tent outside so attendees will be able to visit with other attendees.
For this year’s conference, he said they’ve really leaned into local mental health providers.
“So we have a really good group of counselors from Kosciusko County,” Darren said. “Our goal there is to try to help people in the community get to interact and get to know mental health providers, so that if they’re looking for people for somebody for their kids or for their family, then they maybe can make connections.”
The trauma conference draws in people from beyond the county, though, as attendees will come from Missouri, Pennsylvania, Ohio and even possibly Florida and South Carolina.
Darren said the conference may potentially have over 100 Warsaw Community Schools staff attend the conference. WCS Superintendent Dr. David Hoffert, and Grace College professor Dr. Rachael Hoffert, chair of the elementary education program at Grace, are two of the conference speakers. Rachael also sits on the Lost Sparrows Board of Directors.
“They’re both educators. They’re both in the school system, but they’re adoptive parents. Last year, they did a session more designed for teachers; this year, they’re doing a session more designed for parents,” Darren said.
In a letter from Dr. David Hoffert, provided by Darren, Hoffert states, in part, “We have been thoroughly impressed with Lost Sparrows’ commitment to increase awareness and reduce stigma around children’s mental health issues while encouraging collaboration among agencies and organizations whose services and decisions affect children’s mental health and family support. Their efforts are greatly needed in Northern Indiana, as Indiana has the second highest abuse rate in the nation and the third highest child fatality rate, according to the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“WCS believes that Lost Sparrows is intrinsically motivated to make changes and improve the holistic quality of the life for children in foster care and students who have experienced trauma. Lost Sparrows’ collaboration with local agencies will bring dynamic speakers and workshops that directly increase awareness around children’s mental health, while providing training and support for families, schools and community members.”
Hoffert also noted that WCS has committed $5,000 in exchange for staff to attend the “powerful two-day event.”
Tickets to attend the two-day conference are $195, including breakfast and lunch. A one-day ticket is $120. Darren said they do have a scholarship program, and information for that is on the website.
“We still have some funds that have been donated to us. Everyone who has applied has gotten a scholarship at some level,” Darren said, noting that last year they gave out $10,000 in scholarships. “We don’t want the cost to be a barrier. So if someone really can’t afford it – we would asks local churches to pay for their foster families to come.”
He said in a little town like this, “we would never break even selling tickets.” He wishes the cost of $195 was lower. The K21 Health Foundation and the Dekko Foundation provided grants toward the conference, and the conference was able to pick up a number of sponsors, including United Way and Silveus Insurance. All of the sponsors are listed on the website. If it wasn’t for those grants and funding, they would have to charge way more for the tickets, he said.
In 2022, there were about 315 people who attended the conference. As of Friday, registration was about 370, and Darren hopes they’ll hit 400. Some will be one-day attendees, some will be two days. “I think if we hit 400, I’ll be really happy,” he said.
“I would encourage anyone who is just curious to know more about trauma, even if they don’t have trauma themselves; even if they don’t have kids who have trauma; if they just want to help themselves to understand more about the dynamics of what trauma looks like, there’s just a wealth of knowledge in our speakers. I would just encourage people to come just out of curiosity,” Darren stated.
Volunteers are still needed. Anyone who wants to volunteer can email email@example.com.
What Lost Sparrows want to do is raise awareness and meet their mission statement through the conference. Their mission statement is to “equip and empower our community to love and care for vulnerable kids.” Darren said, through the conference, they hope that hundreds and hundreds of people understand trauma better and have new skills to help children struggling with the effects of trauma.
“And all of those people build connections and relationships with other people that they meet at the conference,” he said. “… I hope people come out of the conference feeling more educated. Feeling more empathy, and having a greater ability to support