NEW CANAAN — When Paul Reinhardt first began New Canaan Parent Support Group for parents of children battling addiction, the numbers dropped from meeting to meeting.

The first meeting had seven people, the next five and the following three. The 61-year-old retired New Canaan resident began to panic, but eventually, his group began to grow.

“Word got out,” Reinhardt said in the library room of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church where the group meets every Thursday. “When we had those two ingredients, a safe, confidential environment, and a facilitator, it was very good.”

The group has members with children of all ages, types of addictions and in different early stages of recovery. Some are from as nearby as New Canaan and as far off as Vista, N.Y.

The group’s facilitator helps set and maintain parameters for the group’s discussions, such as being respectful of what others share and keeping the discussion confidential. The facilitator also helps get the conversation rolling and offers input when needed. Each parent is also given a chance to go around at the beginning of class and say how they’ve been doing since the last session.

“We didn’t want a heavy-handed facilitator,” said Reinhardt. “More someone to lay out rules of respect and confidentiality.”

More Information

New Canaan Parent Support

New Canaan Parent Support meets every Thursday from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

For more information, email Paul Reinhardt at preinhar99@gmail.com.

Recently, the group welcomed its second facilitator, Nick deSpoelberch, after its previous facilitator moved. It’s one of the several changes the group has undergone recently, including moving to St. Mark’s to accommodate its growing size. Since the group started past September, the average meeting size is 15-22 people.

“The fact it’s getting more open in a big group is really important,” deSpoelberch said. “The amount of families that suffer is enormous…It’s almost like you can feel the need in the room for community between people. It’s clear there’s a need for more resources and support.”

The inspiration behind the group came last summer when Reinhardt and his wife were featured in an article talking about their son, Evan’s, battle with addiction. Evan lost his life to a heroin overdose in July 2015 at the age of 24.

Following the article, Reinhardt heard from about 75 people who’d gone through similar experiences and began looking into forming a group for parents to come together and support each other through child’s addiction and early recovery.

“I was looking for a way to do something to help save other lives,” Reinhardt said. “I wanted to do something local in the community that’d make an impact.”

Reinhardt wanted to hold the meetings at a coffee shop but found from talking to other support groups that a public location would be off-putting. Instead, local churches stepped up as a private venue and the group began meeting at the Congregational Church of New Canaan until last month when they needed to expand.

deSpoelberch, 38, joined the group then, offering a new perspective as not only a licensed counselor who works with addiction but as a survivor. deSpoelberch has been in recovery from a heroin and alcohol addiction for over three years. Much of the time, deSpoelberch focuses on the experiences he’s had to work with families in his job to help advise group members. Occasionally, he’ll offer his perspective on addiction, but only when he believes it’ll be helpful for a parent to hear.

“It was an interesting switch,” he said. “It’s an area of great passion for me and it feels good to be giving more assistance to parents. Behind every person with an addiction is a whole family struggling with it. Addiction takes on a life of its own. The families don’t sign up for this roller coaster.”

While his role is mostly to hang back and facilitate, he also offers parents a valuable asset: hope that recovery is possible.

“The biggest thing is instilling a sense of hope,” he said. “I thought hope was gone for me. Having hit rock bottom and come out, I try to share that with people.”

Many of the parents also have children with heroin addictions, but some have offspring abusing other substances as well. A 58-year-old New Canaan mom who spoke on the condition of anonymity said her son’s battle with a marijuana addiction led her to the group.

“I went to Al-Anon meetings,” she said. “I found them awkward.”

Instead, the article led her to New Canaan Parent Support Group which she said has been a big help. In addition to providing more information on addiction and recovery through guest speakers, the group has offered her a support in the form of fellow parents. At a recent meeting, members were encouraged to exchange numbers with the person sitting next to them which ended up helping this mother when she needed encouragement after her son’s college acceptance was withdrawn because of his addiction.

“I thought it’d be awkward, but it was helpful,” she said. “She [the other mother] sent me advice that was spot-on and helpful. It was a few exchanges between us via text and it made all the difference.”

It’s this kind of support deSpoelberch said is integral to the functioning of the group.

“There’s a lot of affirmation,” deSpoelberch said. “People aren’t shy to give a quick word of encouragement.”

“It’s an amazingly unique group,” added a 53-year-old South Salem, N.Y. mom who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. She and her husband joined the group on a recommendation from Silver Hill Hospital where their son was being treated for a drug and alcohol addiction. Both parents say the group offers lots of dialogue and support for not only dealing with their own struggles but their child’s as well.

“One thing that is important is while our kids are all addicts, they’re all human,” said the 56-year-old South Salem, N.Y. father. “They have emotions and issues like every other person.”

“It’s a learning place, it’s a safe place,” he added. “I think it’s been rewarding.”

And while the parents may often talk about their child’s behavior and recovery, the focus of the group is how they’re dealing with things. Many parents go through the 12 step program from Alcoholics Anonymous in order to model good behavior for their children (something Reinhardt said he feels is crucial after seeing his own son’s battle), while some, like the South Salem mom, engage in calming activities like meditation.

“It’s a parents’ group, so it’s how we are dealing, how we are feeling,” she said.

In the future, Reinhardt said he’d like to consider running a bereavement group, as well as a group for siblings of addicts, especially as the parent group becomes more self-sufficient, something he’d hoped to see.

“I’m just the founder in getting it going,” he said. “I feel with the energy the parents are bringing...it’s synergistic. All along, I was hoping it’d be more parent-run, I’m looking to save lives. That’s the cause I want to pursue.”

ekayata@hearstmediact.com; @erin_kayata