Building supportive, authentic connections to foster resilience in

    the face of stress





    AC Groups strive to implement community-based support groups in people's everyday settings, to help foster resilience in the face of high stress. Groups have been successfully conducted in a virtual formats well as in-person, benefiting various groups of women through challenging times.




    AC Groups is a nonprofit developed around the Authentic Connections Groups program, an intervention that supports mothers in the face of stressful life conditions. In turn, this benefits their families: the single most important factor in promoting resilience among children is strong, supportive relationships with primary caregivers --who are usually mothers.



    Tom Benenson - President

    Kimber Bogard - Board Member

    Susan Budinger -Vice President

    Elise Geithner - Secretary

    Nikhil Kumar - Treasurer

    Suniya Luthar - Board Member

    Jennifer Reese - Board Member




    Suniya S. Luthar, Ph.D.

    Founder and Executive Director


    Founder and Executive Director of Authentic Connections, Dr. Suniya S. Luthar is Professor Emerita at Columbia University's Teachers College and also Co-Founder of Authentic Connections, an organization committed to school-based prevention. Dr. Luthar completed her Ph.D. In clinical and developmental psychology at Yale University and a clinical internship at the Yale Child Study Center. Her research involves vulnerability and resilience among various at-risk populations including families affected by mental illness, and those in high-stress work and community settings. Dr. Luthar has been a licensed clinical psychologist since 1990, and has long been committed to ensuring "care for the caregivers" with published intervention studies serving mothers, health care providers, and educators. For details on her intervention work, research publications, and professional honors, please see www.SuniyaLuthar.org.

    Sherry Chesak, Ph.D., R.N.

    Steering Committee Member and Group Facilitator

    Sherry Chesak, Ph.D., R.N., is a Nurse Scientist in the Department of Nursing, Division of Nursing Research at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Her program of research is centered on care for the caregiver, primarily focused on mindfulness-based interventions to enhance resilience among both professional and family caregivers of patients with complex health needs. She received a Master’s degree in Nursing Education from Winona State University and a PhD in Nursing from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. She has attended multiple trainings for teaching resilience principles and mindfulness practices and is certified by the Global Resilience and Inner Transformation Institute as a Resilience Trainer.



    Steve S. Lee, Ph.D.

    Senior Advisor: Policy & Dissemination


    Dr. Steve Lee is Professor and Director of Clinical Psychology Training at UCLA’s Department of Psychology. He is also Associate Editor of the journal Clinical Psychological Science, and Past-President, Society for Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology (SCCAP). Dr. Lee obtained his BA from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from UC Berkeley, and his post-doctoral fellowship in Psychiatric Genetics was done at the University of Chicago. Dr. Lee's ares of expertise include attention deficit and behavioral problems in children, with special attention to how these develop in families, and implications for treatment. Among Dr. Lee's honors is the American Psychological Association's Division 7 2021 Mavis Hetherington Award for Excellence in Applied Developmental Science.





    Helen Burke, LMHCA

    Group Facilitator


    Helen Burke completed her academic and clinical mental health training at Antioch University in Seattle. She is currently a mental health counselor doing individual and group work with youth and parents through a non profit organization (Bainbridge Youth Services) dedicated since 1962 to promoting the social and emotional wellbeing of adolescents and young adults. Helen also does community outreach and education about youth wellness and the importance of supporting caregivers in the hard work of parenting. Counseling is a mid-life career change for Helen who practiced law before having kids. She has facilitated in person and online support groups in and around Seattle for several years and is regularly inspired by the power of group work.






    Amber Cunnings, LMFT

    Group Facilitator


    Amber Cunnings has been a Marriage and Family Therapist and art therapist for over 10 years. She provides AC groups because she believes that this approach creates more resilient and resourced people in the world which can only lead to good things! Amber has worked in various settings from inpatient hospitals to private practice and has a lot of humor, truth telling, story telling, and space holding that she can use to create the best possible group experience for anyone signing up. She attended Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California where she received her Master's degree. She currently owns her own practice based in the metro Detroit area of Michigan.
















    Elise Geithner, BSN, RN

    Steering Committee Member and Board Member

    Elise Geithner is a pediatric acute care nurse with a background in pediatric palliative care, home hospice, and working with families of children with chronic critical illness. She is currently studying to be a pediatric nurse practitioner at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include compassion fatigue in pediatric medical professionals, supporting the developmental needs of children with chronic critical illness in the hospital and at home, and early integration of palliative care in the treatment plans for children with life-limiting conditions. She completed her Bachelors in Arts in Human Biology at Stanford University, with a concentration in child development. She earned her Bachelors in Science of Nursing from the University of Pennsylvania and received a Graduate Certificate in Pediatric Palliative Care from the University of Washington's Palliative Care Training Center.

    Janae Peters

    Steering Committee Member and

    Group Facilitator

    Janae Peters completed her clinical social work training at the Smith College School for Social Work. She is an educator who actively integrates clinical social work into all aspects of the educational environment. She spends most of her time working with high school students at the Mastery School of Hawken, a school working to transform education by fiercely centering student learning and growth, and graduate students at Smith College School for Social Work, where she has taught Group Theory and Practice and School Social Work. Additionally, she is actively engaged in the pilot stages of founding Prolific Shifts, a cohort space for Black educators and leaders to engage in personal and professional development. In every realm, she has engaged a relational and process oriented approach to learning with and supporting others and always has a highest goal of understanding how different social, political, historical, and environmental contexts influence our capacities for learning, growth, and transformation.

    Pam Roy

    Steering Committee Member


    Pam Roy is a philanthropist, investor, businesswoman, and community leader with a mission to provide transformational community-based mental health support for families and youth. She is co-founder of Straight Up Impact, a company at the intersection of film and social impact. As part of their Meaning in Madness film series, she collaborated with Big Picture Learning, to create B-Unbound, a community platform that connects 14-24-year-olds to supportive adults and peers around shared interests. It runs parallel to school systems and is free to all youth. Recognizing the key role meaning plays in wellness, Pam is the co-founder of the Viktor Frankl Institute of America and co-author of “The Inspiring Wisdom of Viktor E. Frankl.” She writes a blog that inspires and challenges parents to look at systemic issues affecting youth mental health and wellbeing.

    Erika A. Thomas-Collins, Psy.D., DLLP, LPC,


    Group Facilitator


    Dr. Erika A. Thomas-Collins is a Doctoral Limited License Psychologist and Licensed Professional Counselor. She received her doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology from the Michigan School of Psychology and her Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling from the University of Phoenix. Additionally, she is a Nationally Certified Counselor, Certified Clinical Trauma Professional, and Approved Clinical Supervisor. Dr. Erika has been working in the Mental Health field since 2008, obtaining experience in case management, home-based therapy, individual, couples, family, and group therapy, psychiatric hospital intake, and supervision/management. In 2013 Dr. Erika established her own private practice located in New Haven, Michigan. Dr. Erika’s area of interest and dissertation research was focused on racial identity development for Multiracial individuals. Her areas of clinical specialty include mood disorders, borderline personality disorder, and PTSD/trauma.

    Alexandra M. Ingram, Ph.D.

    Project Director and Group Facilitator


    Dr. Alexandra M. Ingram completed her education and training in clinical psychology at Arizona State University, as well as clinical internship in health service and postdoctoral fellowship in couples and family psychology at the Veterans Affairs Medical Centers in Jackson, MS and Charleston, SC. Her research and clinical focus include children and families affected by adversity (e.g., divorce, bereavement, severe mental illness) and interventions to promote resilience and recovery from developmental, interpersonal, and systems-based approaches. She looks forward to continuing dissemination of published research and access to clinical interventions for at-risk groups in her current role as project director of AC Groups.





    Tracy Juliao, Ph.D.

    Senior Advisor: Clinical Practice and Group Facilitator

    Dr. Tracy Juliao is a fully licensed health psychologist who owns an integrative mental healthcare practice with multiple locations in southeast Michigan. She received her Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Columbia University's Teachers College. Professionally, Dr. Juliao has worked as a clinician, a business owner/leader, and an instructor at several universities for over 20 years. Dr. Juliao's early research interests included women's multiple roles via a health lens. Growing out of her research, all aspects of her clinical work and teaching have continued to focus on integrative health, trauma, shame, energy psychology, and a whole person perspective, which has resulted in a lifetime of advanced education and certification in healing modalities in those speciality areas.


    Jennifer Reese, M.D.

    Steering Committee Member and

    Board Member


    Dr. Jenny Reese is the Section Head of Pediatric Hospital Medicine, and Associate Vice Chair for Faculty Well-being, Department of Pediatrics, University of Colorado School of Medicine. In addition to her clinical work as a hospitalist, she is also the Medical Director for Provider Well-being, Children's Hospital Colorado, leading work promoting well-being for health care providers at Children's Hospital Colorado, and Department of Pediatrics. This work focuses on understanding and mitigating burnout and promoting resilience for health care providers, including research interests in quality improvement. She enjoys facilitating workshops and public speaking on these topics.





    Megan Smith, Dr.PH

    Steering Committee Member


    Dr. Megan Smith's areas of expertise include maternal mental health, postpartum depression, childhood poverty, and community-based interventions. Megan received her MPH degree at the Yale University School of Public Health, and her doctoral degree in Maternal and Child Health at Boston University School of Public Health. While an Associate Professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and in the Child Study Center in the Yale School of Medicine, she created an innovative community-based program: the Mental health Outreach for MotherS (MOMS) Partnership. She remains involved with the MOMS program as Founder and Director, and is currently working to transform systems of mental health care for low-income women at the state level, with a focus on reducing mental health inequities related to race, ethnicity, and poverty, Megan serves as Principal Investigator on studies ranging from the epidemiology of depressive and anxiety disorders in the perinatal period to the use of mobile health technology to reduce depression in mothers.

    Amelia Walker, MSW, LLMSW

    Group Facilitator


    Amelia Walker (she/her) is a clinical social worker based out of southeast Michigan. She completed her social work training at the University of Michigan, focusing on integrated health and interdisciplinary treatment. Amelia works with clients of all ages with a focus on supporting the LGBTQIA2S+ community. She approaches her work with radical acceptance and centers clients’ needs and goals in her therapeutic approach; meeting clients where they are at is her priority. She has experience using DBT informed practice, mindfulness, motivational interviewing, CBT, and Trauma Focused CBT. Creating and fostering community relationships that are supportive, beneficial, and healing remains at the center of her practice.


    The 12 week Authentic Connections Groups program involves

    weekly 1-hour virtual group sessions that enhance support 

    for people with demanding, stressful lives. 


    Groups include 

    5-6 participants from similar backgrounds, 

    and are facilitated by trained and experienced clinicians.

    Learn about AC Groups from:

    Public Broadcasting Service

    PBS shows Authentic Connections Groups in--person and virtually.

    Clip from the Raising Good Humans Podcast

        Dr. Aliza describes science-based Authentic Connections Groups

    "For all the moms out there, she's taken the research and put it into practice by creating nonprofit groups where moms can have and find authentic connections." - Dr. Aliza Pressman, Co-Founder Mount Sinai Parenting Center -


    • Allow people to join evidence-based support groups from anywhere with video-conferencing
    • Help participants enhance supportive, nurturing relationships with others like them -- such as mothers or fathers with children of different ages, people in demanding jobs, those dealing with divorce or separation, members of ethnic minority and LGBTQ+ groups, and more.
    • Provide a structured program focused on topics known to be important in forging and maintaining close relationships, which are the cornerstone of resilience.
    • Has been validated in scientific publications, and is recommended by the National Academies of Science, Engineering as an effective intervention to foster resilience.


    Across all research studies of AC Groups -- including in-person and virtual formats -- there werezero dropouts.

    Mean satisfaction ratings were over 9 / 10 and Net Promoter Scores (promoters vs. detractors) in the

    Excellent to World Class range


    Based in longstanding research on relational interventions for mothers, the AC Groups program was first tested at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona as a means of reducing burnout among physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners, all of whom were mothers. Compared with women in a control group, those attending AC Groups showed statistically greater improvements across several aspects of well-being: reductions in the biological stress hormone cortisol and in professional burnout, stress, depression, anxiety, as well as increased support from others and self-compassion. Strikingly, the relative gains shown by AC Groups mothers were still further improved three months later in follow up assessments.1, 2



    A second randomized controlled trial was done with Nurse leaders who were mothers at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Results showed that the AC Groups intervention was feasible and well-received by nurse leaders. AC Group participants showed significantly greater improvements than control mothers, with medium to large effect sizes, as indicated by reductions in s in depression, anxiety, perceived stress, and increases in feeling loved and self-compassion.3



    AC Groups were conducted in virtual format with five sets of women, all white-collar professionals with stressful, demanding careers, and most also primary caregivers of their children. Results showed that there were zero dropouts, as was the case in both Mayo in-person trials. Mean satisfaction ratings were 9.6 of 10 and the Net Promoter Score fell in the “world class” range.4


    1. Luthar, S.S., ... Engelman, J.C., &. Stonnington, C. M. (2017). Fostering resilience among mothers under stress: “Authentic Connections Groups” for medical professionals.

    2. Stonnington, C.M., & Luthar, S.S. (2020). Authentic Connections Groups contribute to resilience and less burnout among physician mothers.

    3. Chesak, S.S., Bhagra, A., Cutshall, S... Luthar, S. S. (2020). Authentic Connections Groups: A pilot test of an intervention aimed at enhancing resilience among nurse leader mothers.

    4. Luthar, S. S, Kumar, N. L., & Benoit R. (2019). Toward fostering resilience on large scale: Connecting communities of caregivers. Development & Psychopathology, 31, 1813-25.




    "This group has been the most life-giving experience since becoming a mom … it has been a hard adjustment transitioning from a nurse leader to a nurse leader with young children … For the first time in the past few years I feel like I found a place that is safe to talk about the frustrations, ups, downs, challenges, vulnerabilities and real-life aspects of being a working mother."

    “It is great to be able to relate to other working moms in healthcare. It is important to feel connected, supported, understood, and listened to. I think for some moms, including myself, it is easier to tell ourselves that living in stress is the ‘new norm' and just keep going without exploring the opportunity to connect with others. I almost wish this group intervention can be made mandatory to all as I was skeptical before signing up for it but having been a participant, I'm so glad I did.”


    "You must make and take time to yourself and this group provides a safe, authentic space to be vulnerable and honest with yourself and other women. The AC Group is a true gift and I wish I could share it with other women."

    "An online support group where a woman can be herself and still be accepted and loved for who she is at her core … these groups are a way to gain new insight from fellow women/mothers around the US with minimal time commitment."

     - Luthar et al., 2019

    "Given the low cost and ease of access—from mothers’ own workplaces, homes, or even while traveling—such virtual groups might be considered a useful model to be explored further in future work with mothers"



    Interested in joining an AC Group led by Dr. Luthar or an experienced facilitator? Please apply here.



    Fees for participation:

    • The fee structure has flexibility, with need-based sliding scale options.
    • Our general suggested donation fee, per session, is $100 -- reduced to only $50 through Jan 2022, thanks to a recent generous donation to the nonprofit!**
    • Participants can sign up for six weeks at a time (with the option to renew for the second half of the 12 session program). With $100 out-of-pocket per hour, for a commitment of 6 meetings, this would amount to a maximum of $600 for 6 weeks and $1200 for all 12 weeks.
    • All this said, we are flexible. We have never turned anyone away for lack of funds, ever since AC Groups were started five years ago. While completing the application form, you can certainly request a sliding scale fee!
    **Almost half of this (40%) can be deducted from participants' taxable income, as it goes directly to the nonprofit; 60% would be going directly to the group facilitator.

    For more information, please contact info@ACGroups.org

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