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University of Iowa students start online support group for siblings affected by adversity

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University of Iowa students and sorority sisters Caleigh Bemont and Bridget Blair say they are two very different people. But together, they’ve united under one cause: to empower siblings who have a brother or sister affected by adversity.

The pair recently launched their nonprofit, Siblings Empowered, which is an online support group that connects siblings who have been affected by cancer, death, disabilities, mental illness and other life adversities.

The project started as the brainchild of Bemont, a journalism and entrepreneurship major at UI whose sister, Brooke, was diagnosed with brain cancer on April 21, 2007. Bemont was just 12 years old, her sister nine. Her family called Brooke’s tumor “Lumpy the loser” and together they stood strong alongside Brooke as she battled brain cancer.

But Bemont grappled with keeping a brave face as her sister went through treatment. Brooke is now cancer free, but lives with a learning disability, losing her once “bright and bubbly personality” to radiation treatment, Bemont said.

“Siblings struggle too,” she said. “You’re watching it happen and you don’t know how to control it.”

Bemont’s parents suggested she see a counselor, but Bemont just wanted a peer to talk to, confide in and lean on. Someone who had been through something similar and would understand.

Bemont suspected there were more siblings like her who were struggling alongside a sibling dealing with cancer. During entrepreneurship classes and Founders Club meetings at UI’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, Bemont began to develop an idea for a blog that would connect siblings affected by cancer.

But when Blair overheard Bemont talking about her project at a sorority meeting, she pulled her aside and asked, “why not expand?” Blair revealed she’d also been a sibling of adversity — her brother, Shawn, had been murdered when she was just 12-years-old.

She was at a track meet when Shawn, then 21, was stabbed at a bar in Sioux City. His death shocked the family and for years, Blair blamed herself.

He had called her during the track meet, asking if anyone was home, but she didn’t have her phone. It had been taken away as punishment for sending a text with a bad word. Had she been able to answer, maybe things would have been different, she thought.

“It took me until my senior year of high school to realize it wasn’t my fault,” she said.

Blair empathized with Bemont and knowing there were others like them who needed each other for connection and comfort, they began to brainstorm further. Together they developed Siblings Empowered to what it is today, an online network where siblings affected by adversity can blog, connect and chat.

“It’s a virtual support system,” Bemont said.

“In todays world, with so many challenges and specific niches, it’s hard to figure out where to go to get help,” said Jeff Nock, leader of the Founders Club and a mentor to Blair and Bemont.

“People who have siblings with cancer don’t have an outlet right now to connect with each other and help each other through it,” he continued. “Siblings Empowered has come up with a solution.”

Siblings Empowered still is in its early stages — they just launched in December — but users can make an account at their website, siblingsempowered.org and connect and chat one-on-one with other users. Eventually, Bemont and Blair hope to develop the site to be more “personalized and easy to use,” with profiles like other social networks where users can share their story and see how others were affected. They’re also considering a mobile app.

But right now, they’re focused on building a user base so that they can take their pitch to investors and sponsors for financial support. “Just because they’re a nonprofit doesn’t mean they’re for loss,” Nock explained. “You have to keep the lights on and put food on the table.”

In fact, in April, Blair and Bemont will attend InnovateHER, a competition for female- and family-focused companies hosted by the Small Business Association. Local winners have a chance to compete nationally for $40,000.

They also recently launched a GoFundMe and will host a launch party with sunset yoga at Lower City Park in Iowa City on April 22.

They emphasized their work is not driven by competition or money, but rather a desire to support siblings like them.

“There is currently not something like this and we want siblings to know that their voice is heard,” Bemont said. “This is a specific place for you. We want it to feel like a fun, safe place.”

IF YOU GO

What: Siblings Empowered Launch

When: April 22, 6:30 pm

Where: Lower City Park, 200 Park Rd, Iowa City

Details: Enjoy a sunset yoga session and light refreshments for the Siblings Empowered launch party.

l Comments: (319) 398-8364; elizabeth.zabel@thegazette.com

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