An Andover couple created a website that lets families share information in a way that keeps everyone accountable, and keeps kids out of the middle of conflicts.
Dara Wegener-Volker and Paul Volker invented the “Our Family Wizard” website to help divorced parents manage communication among former spouses and their children. Paul and Dara were married before, so this came from their own experiences.
Just before Christmas 2000, several months after Paul Volker and Dara Wegener-Volker married, each for the second time, Dara was wrapping Christmas gifts in the living room when the front door flew open and Paul's three middle-school kids -- Katrina, Chelsea and Sean -- came running in from the school bus.
"I panicked and cried out, 'What are you doing here?' I was sure they were supposed to go to their mom's house after school. They thought they were supposed to come here," said Dara, who also has a daughter, Emilee Velander, now 15. "It was an innocent misunderstanding, but it led Paul and me to really think about how we were all communicating."
Paul was intrigued by the possibility of creating a website for families to share information in a way that would keep everybody accountable, but also keep kids out of the middle of conflicts.
In 2001, the couple, who live in Andover, hired a small team of computer and marketing experts to help them launch Our Family Wizard, an online tool that can be used by divorced couples to communicate with their former spouses and kids.
Features include a calendar where parents and kids can log upcoming events, parenting schedules and holidays; an info bank that stores data such as emergency phone numbers, insurance information and health and immunization history; an expense log, and a message board.
Parents and children are given individual passwords to the family site; the cost of an annual subscription is $99 per parent. Children and third-party participants with a close relationship to the family, such as grandparents and care providers, can participate at no cost and get limited access. Others could include family therapists or lawyers, because while Our Family Wizard helps those who are actively co-parenting their children, it also benefits families facing conflict and communication challenges.
"There are some people who shouldn't have face-to-face contact or even phone conversations, but there is information parents need to be able to have and share," said Kevin McGrath, a family court referee in Hennepin County. "[Our Family Wizard] can help us figure out the 'he said, she said' if there are disputes." Each page of the site has a time stamp, so log-in times for every participant are recorded.
Erin Duffy of Hopkins has been using Our Family Wizard for almost five years to communicate with her ex-husband, with whom she shares custody of their daughter, Brekkyn, 7. Duffy initially learned about the site from her attorney and said the message board and calendar have been helpful.
"This is the only way we communicate," she said, adding the time stamp has been a valuable feature for them. "The calendar is a good way to plan holidays and vacations."
Communicating during the holiday season can be especially stressful for divorced parents, according to Mary Jo Faustgen, a licensed family therapist at the Midwest Center for Personal and Family Development in St. Paul. "We all grow up with a certain set of expectations about the holidays, and when those aren't met for whatever reason, emotions can run high. People get really angry and impatient with one another," she said.
The Volkers say their main goal for Our Family Wizard is to bring peace into family life.
"Kids aren't a time-share," said Paul. "The better communication you can have when it comes to managing their lives together, the more 'win-wins' there will be in the long run."
Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.