Sister Summit

How four sisters rebuilt their support network across the miles
At midlife and across great distance from each other, Sandi McCann and her sisters have found affirmation and accountability for taking steps toward their life goals by creating their own long-distance take on a support group. Here's how they're doing it and how you can too.

Every Saturday morning, Sandi McCann, 48, sits down in her favorite chair in her Boulder, Colo., home, with her journal in one hand and her phone in the other. She begins making calls.

She calls her sisters Maureen, 46, in Colorado and Judy, 52, who lives near Chicago. Then their sister Carolyn, 50, gets on the line from her New Jersey home and another session of the Sister Summit convenes.

This isn’t a gossip group. These four sisters who live across three different time zones set aside at least an hour a week to talk about what matters most: their dreams, their goals and how they can make a difference. And, after a year of sharing their greatest hopes, fears and disappointments during this weekly conversation, the women say their summit has not only strengthened their relationships with each other, it’s transformed their lives.

How the McCann sisters reconnected

The sisters were close while growing up with two brothers, an ultra-organized father and a creative, artistic mother, but grew apart as adults when they moved away, started their own families and took on their own careers. While they kept in touch, they spent little time with each other.

Last year, that changed when the four planned a sisters-only retreat at Sandi's home. There they reconnected in a way that was both deeply personal and empowering for each of the women. By the end of the weekend, no one wanted to lose that feeling, Sandi says. And the Sister Summit was born.

The time was right, Sandi says. After years of working on marriages, surviving divorces, raising young children, and managing careers, households and relationships, the women now have the time and desire to follow their dreams into the next phase of life.

“We all have things that we really wanted to do,” says the oldest sister Judy. “Now we can be our own support group to help each other accomplish our hopes and dreams.”

Sandi, a marketing executive who recently also became a certified yoga instructor, serves as the moderator of the group and starts each session with a big, thoughtful question like: “What are you working on this week?” “What have you done to move toward your goals?” or “What inspires you? What are you thankful for?”

The answers lead to insights and ideas. Everyone has a chance to talk, and everyone weighs in with opinions and perspectives. And, with the wisdom that comes with age and life experience, all of the women have much to share. McCann says she feels as though she has more to contribute now than she ever did, and that feeling is both empowering and motivating.

“Sister Summit has reminded me of my strengths and talents, and the fact that we talk every week holds me accountable to not only my sisters, but to myself,” Sandi says.

“It makes me think all week,” she adds. What can I find to bring to the Sister Summit that I can share? I am so much more aware day-to-day.”

The conversations are not always easy. The sisters are both direct and gentle with each other. They listen a lot, but when it comes to offering feedback they are also honest, speaking the truth in a way no one else can. While nobody really gets angry, Sandi says, some conversations are charged with emotion and the sisters’ vulnerabilities are exposed.

“Everybody brings in their perspective and you can take it or leave it but, because we’re all connected by birth and where we grew up, there is this sense that nobody is going to ditch you,” McCann says.

The honesty, generosity and support bestowed by the group has served as a launch pad, propelling each one of the women toward their own goals. In that way, Sandi says, the support group has been life changing.

“I get off the phone and I feel so energized and so inspired,” Sandi says. “We’ve had times that we’ve all been crying, but it’s because we are just so touched. And the fact that we stay focused on our goals is so powerful.”

Why you need a strong support system

There is plenty of research to explain why the women feel inspired and happy long after their conversations.

Social support is a powerful antidote to the daily demands and stress that contribute to depression, heart disease, high blood pressure and other ailments that can lead to chronic disease. People with a strong social network tend to live longer and have fewer health problems, according to the American Institute of Stress.

And family connections can be especially powerful, because the shared history among siblings provides a solid foundation for the relationship, says psychologist Irene Levine, author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend.

The Sister Summit also works because each member of the group has a commitment to each other and to the process. They set aside the time. They stay focused on their goals and dreams and they come open and willing to support the others, McCann says. But you don’t have to be a sister to reap the rewards of that kind of support.

McCann's tips for building your support network

Whether you’re forming a group with close friends or a network of sisters, a simple structure and a few basic guidelines will ensure that your own support group will be both empowering and inspiring for all involved. Sandi offers these tips:

  • Create a mission or purpose statement. This helps the group move forward by keeping the focus on the things that the members decide are important.

  • Establish some rules. How often will the group meet and when? Will you gather in person or by conference call or video conference? Do members prefer a more casual, anything-goes conversation or a goal-oriented focus? How long will you talk? Who, if anyone, will lead? There is no right or wrong way to set up a support group, but it’s important that all members be heard and feel supported.

  • Minimize the multitasking. When McCann connects with her sisters, she is focused only on the conversation at hand. She doesn’t fold laundry or load the dishwasher. She gives the group her full attention. Not everyone can do that all the time. But it helps to know that when you are talking with the group, members are listening and engaged. “To truly help your sisters you need to sit, breathe with them and really listen,” Sandi says, “So that you can offer thoughtful advice and support.”

  • Make it mutual. Give everyone a chance to speak and be heard. When you’re not sharing, be a supportive listener and look for things you can contribute to the group in support of the other members.

The positive energy created by an encouraging, supportive group not only has the power to inspire the women within it, but can also reach far beyond the small circle of its members and leave us all feeling a little better.

“I leave each call feeling more lifted and happy and connected,” Sandi says. “I take that feeling throughout my weekend and I’m able to share that part of me — that light — with those around me.

“And yes, you could say the Sister Summit makes me more peaceful, more confident and courageous, because we show up for it, every week, and help each other. That brings me joy.”

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