President's Message #8, Fall 1999
by Dr. Marjorie Engel
As entrepreneurial ideas go, it wasn't far-fetched—simply "change the world for stepfamilies!" Back in 1977, that's exactly what Emily and John Visher decided to do. Following 18 years of unexpected challenges while trying to integrate two families with four children in each, they were convinced that the tasks would have been easier with support and assistance.
Thanks to the Visher's conviction and a like-minded luncheon companion, the California stepfamily organization was born. Brochures were printed, a newsletter was published, and the first annual membership conference was held—in a living room. The local media was curious and paid attention. So did network television. The calls began pouring in and they clearly indicated it was time to begin working on a national level. Emily noted, "People were so happy to have someone to talk with who understood where they were coming from." The Stepfamily Association of America was incorporated in the fall and its first Board of Directors meeting was held on December 1 and 2, 1979. Happy 20th birthday to us!
The daunting task of building a national organization was undertaken by a dedicated group of supporters. By-laws, chapter structures, and even terminology were hammered out. It was decided to use the term "stepfamily" in the organization title because other names describing stepfamilies are confusing (e.g., blended, reconstituted) and all other family types are defined by the parent-child relationships (e.g., biological, foster, adoptive, single-parent). While this choice of name has been seen by some as negative, the Association expressed the hope that, through education, the term "stepfamily" would acquire a positive, or at the very least a neutral, connotation.
Over the years, our newsletter appeared in many renditions and is now in the process of becoming a multi-part publication that will include a segment for professionals and separate sections for the adults and the children in a stepfamily. The initial annotated bibliography has expanded to keep pace with increased research about stepfamilies. Our original catalog of stepfamily resources has become a peer reviewed compilation that implies professional endorsement of the books and materials carried in our bookstore.
Public awareness of SAA continued to increase and was not limited to the United States. Groups in Canada, Great Britain, and Australia were modeled after the Stepfamily Association of America. In the midst of all this activity, the organization simply outgrew the Visher's kitchen. Management of SAA had been demanding all of Emily's time and, at long last, John would be able to relinquish some of his marketing and cooking chores. In 1982, we hired a paid Executive Director, the office was moved clear across the country, and we began to call Baltimore, MD, home. While there, we implemented a fund-raising phon-a-thon and prize-winning Public Service Announcements were donated. Since 1989, the Association's office management activities have been located in Lincoln, NE. Initially directed by professional family therapists, our SAA board now also includes educators, financial advisors, clergy and pastoral counselors, lawyers, business consultants, entrepreneurs, public-policy professionals, chapter leaders, and stepparents.
SAA has held conferences and Professional Institute Programs over the years. Stepfamilies and the professionals who work with them have met with us in Estes Park, CO; Ashville, NC; Pacific Grove, CA; Chevy Chase, MD; Winter Park, CO; Lincoln, NE; New Orleans, LA; Irvine, CA; Houston, TX; Oklahoma City, OK; Las Vegas, NV; Washington, DC; Williamsburg, VA; Oakland, CA; Salt Lake City, UT; Philadelphia, PA; Boston, MA; Kansas City, MO; and Vancouver, BC, Canada. Always reaching farther and wider, the Association is in the midst of planning a large professional interdisciplinary conference on stepfamilies to be held in the Spring of 2001.
A little over a year ago, the board revisited our organization's direction and focus as we move into the 21st century. SAA's purpose is to develop and disseminate research-based information and materials; design, implement, and evaluate opportunities for support and education; evaluate and recommend programs, materials, and standards of practice; and advocate for financial, institutional, political, and social changes that support stepfamilies.
Using individual areas of expertise, each board member works on specific projects designed to further our stepfamily work. These projects include partnerships with large U.S. family service organizations; managing the stepfamily segment of a new internet company; support for stepfamily programming in the media (national and international tv and radio, movies and documentaries, and print media including newspapers and magazines); manuscript review and endorsement evaluation for book publishers; marketing consultant for a line of family-based greeting cards; resource for teachers, administrators, and researchers in our schools, colleges, and universities; promoting state and federal recognition of stepfamilies through Stepfamily Day on September 16th; addressing ways that existing laws and policies are detrimental to stepfamily members; and expansion of educational programs in our own Professional Training Institute.
Can you guess what year SAA was recognized as an important resource by The White House Conference on Families? The Conference made the following policy recommendations:
It should be the policy of the Federal Government that the stepfamily is a reality in America today and that all publications, programming, and funding recognize the fact.
The year was 1980. We are still the only national non-profit membership organization for stepfamilies. While we have made great strides, there is much work to do. Join us and support us in our vision that Stepfamilies in the United States will be accepted, supported, and successful.
Dr. Marjorie Engel is president of the Stepfamily Association of America