Twenty years ago on a national park hike, URI alumna Elaine Meyer, a Harvard Medical School psychologist, and her husband Barry Prizant, an autism expert and adjunct professor at Brown University, had an idea. As they reflected on the beauty around them, they imagined how a retreat in nature could help parents of children with autism—giving them a time and place to learn from each other and ease the stresses of their lives.

Meyer knew a perfect place for the program: the University’s W. Alton Jones Campus and its Whispering Pines Conference Center, located in the middle of a 2,300-acre forest in West Greenwich. In March 2013, Meyer and Prizant celebrated the 18th year of the annual retreat they organize with Community Autism Resources, a parent-run family support agency.

We’ve created a community here that helps everyone become the very best parent they can under the circumstances. We’re making a difference in people’s lives.

According to Meyer, the success of the retreat is due to its focus on small group discussions, social support, and access to opportunities for growth and healing.

“People are here to learn more than just about autism and their children,” she said. “They’re exploring their own person-hood and parenthood and their family relationships. We have a personal growth and self-care focus. If parents can take care of themselves and nurture themselves, they’ll be able to take care of their families better. This retreat is about self-discovery, about learning to accept yourself.”

Being with and learning from others who understand the challenges they face, attendees—who return year after year—come away with ideas and an important network.

“We’ve created a community here that helps everyone become the very best parent they can under the circumstances,” concluded Meyer. “It has been one of the greatest sources of professional pride for me, to create this environment and sustain it over 18 years. We’re making a difference in people’s lives.”