Coming to terms with the loss of a loved one is among life’s hardest journeys. For children, the path can be especially confusing and difficult. In the Rio Grande Valley there is only one organization that specializes in helping young people travel that road to healing.
The Children’s Bereavement Center Rio Grande Valley in Harlingen opened in February 2017 to foster healing for grieving children and their families. “That’s really the heart of what we do here,” said Cindy Perez-Waddle, a licensed professional counselor. “We work with youth as young as 3 up to the early 20s. Our mission is to help them through the grieving process, to help them heal.”
The nonprofit center is an offshoot of a 21-year-old program in San Antonio. Through individual and family counseling, peer support groups and other free services, the Harlingen center provided grief therapy assistance to 399 families in its first 10 months. During that same period, 245 individuals received on-site assessments, individualized counseling and/or grief support services. And the numbers continue to grow in 2018.
Rooms in the center are colorfully decorated with different themes that play a role in helping youngsters deal with their grief. There is a music room, a mini-theater with puppets and other props where children can act out their feelings, and rooms with different toys and play therapy options. “Toys are their words and play is their language,” Perez-Waddle said. “It helps them make sense of the world around them in a very concrete way. We want them to be in a healthy place.”
The center has also introduced Camp Caterpillar, an overnight summer camp for children ages 8 to 12, offered to those who were otherwise unable to attend regular grief sessions. “We try to make it really fun for them,” said Joanna Ortiz-Gomez, a licensed master social worker. “It includes teens who have gone through the program to talk about their grief journey.”
Camp Caterpillar, with its butterfly logo symbolizing the human metamorphosis that occurs through the grieving process, is offered free of charge, as are all the bereavement center services. The nonprofit relies on donations to fund the operation.
Randy Baker, formerly with the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation, serves as the center’s interim regional director. In addition to overseeing the day-to-day operations he is the point person for marketing, increasing public awareness and fundraising. He said 60 percent of the nonprofit center’s funding comes from foundation grants, with donations from businesses and individuals accounting for 22 percent of the revenue. The remainder comes from events and outreach training.
“Part of my job is fundraising for the center,” Baker said. “We don’t really have anybody behind us to back us up. A lot of my job is marketing development as far as fundraising goes. We need to build on the support we now have to continue operating and fund new services.”
Another area where the nonprofit business serves the community is through outreach training for other healthcare and education professionals in the Valley. The Grief Education Institute hosts workshops like “Healing Through Expressive Arts: Incorporating Drama and Music” and “Helping the Grieving Student.” In the center’s first year more than 3,500 attended advocacy and professional grief education training.
“We do a lot of outreach with counselors in school districts,” Ortiz-Gomez said. “We try to bring awareness because they can be the first point of contact and they are able to identify when additional help is needed.”
Based on feedback from individuals who have participated in grief counseling programs at the center, 100 percent of caregivers said the program had not only helped their child but helped adults cope with their grief, and 97 percent reported improvement in their child’s behavioral or emotional issues.
“It really pulls at the heartstrings to see the work being done here,” Baker said. “We want to get the word out because we want people to know about the center. We want them to know they don’t have to go through this alone.”