FROM SINGING THE BLUES TO SPEAKING HER TRUTH by Malia Rulon Herman Photos by Julia Maloof Verderosa
Sheltering Journey, a Maplewood nonprofit, aims to offer community, resources and respite.
Janice Wiggins has a lot to say. She’s the mother of two adult daughters, the youngest of whom struggles with emotional and behavioral challenges.
That means for Wiggins the last two decades have been spent not only managing her jazz and blues singing career and her regular household responsibilities, but also supporting and advocating for her daughter, keeping in regular contact with therapists, case managers, psychiatrists, and school administrators, and staying on top of paperwork, procedures, and evaluations necessary to keep her daughter stable and healthy.
So, when the world (and Wiggins’ singing career) shut down during the pandemic, Wiggins started talking.
“I was sitting on my porch, and I said, I’m just going to speak into the mic about the reality of being a parent of a child who is neurodiverse, a child who has challenges,” Wiggins said.
What happened next was magical: “Hi there,” she croons, in her warm, velvety smooth voice, “welcome to the first episode of Sheltered Journey, a place where parents and caregivers of children with emotional, behavioral, developmental and intellectual challenges can come anytime, anywhere to feel less alone, less isolated in their journey.”
Starting in April of 2021 and continuing through 47 episodes (and counting), Wiggins talks about the exhaustion, the loneliness, and the emotional toll of parenting a child with challenges, from having to medicate – or hospitalize – your child to the effects of the reactions of others on your psyche.
In Episode 16, “No Need to Call Back,” Wiggins discusses how even the simple act of returning a friend’s phone call can cause stress.
“Like many other parents or caregivers of children with challenges, I live in a state of overwhelm,” Wiggins says. “It’s not that I’m uninterested. I’m a good friend, I’m a loyal friend, but most times, I’ve got nothing to give.”
One listener emailed Wiggins after the podcast saying that is “exactly how she feels as a mom and caregiver.”
Wiggins invites everyone to listen to her podcast, even those who are not parents or not parents of neurodiverse children: “This is also a place for people who may not be on this particular journey but who want to learn, understand and be more supportive of the people in their lives who are on this path,” she says.
Wiggins explains in Episode 22, “The Things We Celebrate,” how parents like her might not celebrate the same things as parents of typical kids. Instead of posting photos of smiling kids holding First Day of School signs or attending prom, parents like her might celebrate the fact that an overwhelmed, anxious child makes it through an entire school day, or that a teenager lost in depression smiles for the first time in months.
Calling her podcast a “mobile support group,” Wiggins explores how parenting a child with challenges has changed her and her relationships (she’s divorced); what it’s like to parent the “forgotten” sibling of a child living with challenges; what it feels like to have a house that’s not amenable to company (her daughter can’t stand the sight of a banana); and how holidays for parents like her are not always the most wonderful time of the year.
“Ideas for episodes come to me all the time. I have index cards all over the house with notes,” Wiggins says, explaining that it takes about a week to write, record, and edit each episode, which averages about 15-20 minutes.
“They’re designed for busy caregivers – a quick walk, a drive from the school home,” Wiggins says of the podcast length.
Since starting in 2021, Sheltered Journey has been streamed about 12,000 times, mostly by listeners across the United States (Ohio, Texas, Georgia and California, to name a few), although there’s a small international following as well (United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Germany, for example), according to Wiggins. It’s available on multiple podcast streaming services, such as Spotify and Apple.
One listener, Reesa Salomon of Maplewood, found the podcast through her friendship with Wiggins, who she had met for coffee several times to chat about their shared experiences.
“When I listened to the podcast, I immediately felt what I had felt over coffee with Janice, that I was not alone on my parenting journey,” said Salomon, who is a local speech language therapist, who also runs social skills groups. “For parents of kids with various challenges, that means everything.”
Another listener wrote to Wiggins that she had just discovered the podcast and had already listened to five episodes. “I’m crying happy tears because it’s like you are talking to me,” the listener said.
Mary Gutierrez, a listener from El Paso, Texas, posted on the Sheltered Journey Facebook page to thank Wiggins for the podcasts, which she says mirror many of her own emotions.
“There are many caretakers who just feel the agony and torment everyday with their loved one, and these messages of real experiences acknowledge me,” she wrote. “I am not seeking fame or fortune, but I do yearn (for) a warm hug to assure me that I am indeed doing the best I can.”
And that’s why she does the podcast, Wiggins says.
“It’s been amazing,” she adds, “and it just started with me saying that I just need to be honest about what it’s like.”
That honesty also resonated with Carol Cohen, who moved from Boonton to Maplewood with her husband in 2018 to be near to her adult daughter who is autistic and resides in an independent living home in Maplewood. (Cohen’s daughter works part time for Beloved Bath, a local soap-making business that employs people with autism.)
Cohen, who is a runner (and a member of the SOMA Fox Running Club), said she saw a Facebook post about Sheltered Journey and decided to take her headphones along on her run.
“I started at the beginning, and I listened to every single one,” Cohen says. “And every one of them, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what I need to hear.’”
Cohen, also a former special education teacher, reached out to Wiggins. Before long, a friendship blossomed along with a new mission for Sheltered Journey: Providing resource lists to podcast listeners in all 50 states.
Cohen, who has become the director of volunteer services for Sheltered Journey, started researching caregiver resources and helplines, which are free and confidential phone numbers that parents and caregivers can call for support in hard times. With the help of volunteers, Cohen checks each web link and phone number and then adds it to a drop-down list of resources in each state.
To spread the word about the Sheltered Journey podcast and resources on its website, she also mails stacks of postcards to volunteers across the country, asking them to post them at libraries and other public places.
“It’s a labor of love,” Cohen says of the work. “To know that a frazzled parent can click on ‘support’ and find what they need. I’ve been there. I can appreciate how someone might need that support and not have the time to do the research.”
Self-care is a big theme of Wiggins’ podcasts, and for her next planned expansion of Sheltered Journey, Wiggins aims to make self-care a reality for local parents and caregivers by providing so-called “mini retreats.”
“The need is so great for parents and caregivers,” Wiggins says, listing the names of organizations that provide support to people with disabilities. “There’s a lot there for the child, minor or of age, but the caregiver is the one who gets lost. We get lost.”
In her podcast, Wiggins encourages listeners to find their own “Snickers bar for the brain” by taking a walk, listening to a special audiobook, or buying a yummy treat. In another episode, she suggests finding your favorite upbeat music, such as ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and “ducking into your bathroom with your air buds to dance for a few minutes.”
In Episode 14, “What’s in your Toolbox,” Wiggins discusses how support groups, therapy, pets (she has a rescue dog), exercise, or just going to your favorite coffee shop for a soy latte can help ease the stress.
The mini retreats that Wiggins hopes to provide will be housed in the converted space of a local home in Maplewood and offer caregivers a menu of choices for how to spend the three or four hours of respite time they have when their child is at school. Do they want to read a book? Practice yoga? Have a meal prepared for them? Get a massage?
“I want (Sheltered Journey) to be the backbone and support for parents and caregivers of children, minor and adult children, with challenges,” Wiggins says. “I want it to be the place where they can get help figuring things out. But where it starts is, let us take care of you, let us give you a respite.”
Wiggins, who recently downsized from her house in Maplewood to an apartment in Bloomfield, says the mini retreats will start locally because Sheltered Journey is based in Maplewood, but “the goal would be that we would have these respite centers all over the country.”
The key, Wiggins says, is lining up funding. So far, all costs associated with producing the show and printing postcards have been paid by donations, or out of Wiggins’ own pocket. Sheltered Journey took in about $4,000 during the last Giving Tuesday donation push, Wiggins said. She’s applying for grants and working on a book, based on the podcast episodes, to raise additional funds.
“The scale is huge,” Wiggins says, explaining that all she can do is one thing, whether it’s a postcard or a podcast, at a time. “If someone feels less alone, we’ve hit one goal.”
Cohen agrees. In a Facebook post asking for donations on Giving Tuesday last year, she wrote: “When we hit rock bottom … I came across this podcast and it helped me feel less alone when I was at my lowest.”
Malia Rulon Herman is a local education writer and former president of the Special Education Parent Advisory Committee (SEPAC). She wholeheartedly recommends the Sheltered Journey podcast to all parents.