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EVERY SUMMER, Hospice Savannah hosts Camp Aloha, a special retreat for children 6-17 who have recently lost a loved one. Kids share their feelings and learn coping tools in a comfortable setting, hosted by trained bereavement counselors.
“Children sometimes get lost in the shuffle, and providing a safe space for them to tell their stories helps the healing process,” says Jamey Espina, vice president of Service Excellence for Hospice Savannah’s Full Circle Center for Education and Grief Support.
It can be hard enough for grieving kids to connect to the counseling they need, and those most affected by Savannah’s high homicide rate may be the least likely receive it. Many families aren’t aware of or don’t have access to resources, and lack of transportation, poverty and a distrust of institutions create barriers to the non-profit’s community programs and support groups.
With the understanding that children who have experienced the trauma of violent crime may not be able to show up at Camp Aloha or at Full Circle’s facility on Chatham Parkway, Hospice Savannah is partnering with neighborhood leaders to bring the programming to them.
We the Living is a community-based network of trained volunteers and grief professionals that will host six, 5-week support groups at the West Broad YMCA, the Frank Callen Boys & Girls Club, Asbury Memorial Church and other locations around the city where many kids already feel comfortable.
Representatives from Mothers of Murdered Sons & Daughters and the Victim Witness Program, as well as local pastors, guidance counselors and community activists, are a vital part of the equation.
“The goal and strength of this program is that it includes people who are in their lives, people they already trust,” says Espina.
Made possible by a $100,000 grant from the New York Life Foundation, the two-year program has begun by identifying 200 children affected by homicide and will provide training to 100 volunteers by Full Circle’s professional staff. Full Circle coordinator and bereavement counselor Holland Morgan says that will eventually lead to an informed network that can continue the work.
“The idea is at the end of two years, we have all of these people in the community who can help others better handle grief and loss,” says Morgan, who will share training duties with longtime staff members and crisis intervention specialists Barbara Moss-Hogan and Betsy Kammerud.
Kammerud will lead the clinical aspects of the program and acknowledges that the kids coming through We the Living may have an added element of post-traumatic stress than other grieving children.
“Experiencing a death of a loved one by violence can be different than other death. There’s a specific kind of intensity,” says Kammerud, a six-year veteran of Camp Aloha. “We’re teaching tools to deal with grief as well as the stress that comes with the trauma. We’re creating safe space to acknowledge the feelings.”
Combining proven clinical interventions for grief like mindfulness exercises and storytelling, We the Living also incorporates art with partner Loop it Up Savannah and yoga. Music will also play a large part: Each child receives an mp3 player and an iTunes gift card as part of the program and will work with a music therapist to help describe their emotions through their favorite songs.
Morgan says that while building relationships with Savannah’s most violent neighborhoods is the objective of the program, extra care must be taken to understand any gang rivalries and conflicts between families that may affect the group setting.
“That’s where the partnerships come in. Having people who know these kids is the key to success,” he says.
He adds that not working through grief has deleterious effects not only on the individual but on society.
“It comes out as behavioral issues in school, as depression, substance abuse or using violence themselves.”
While exercises and support groups can’t take away the trauma of losing a relative to gun violence, sharing the feelings around the experience of loss can bring about healing.
“Grief is a natural process. We are wired to tell our stories,” affirms Espina.
“If we can create that opportunity for these kids, they will benefit.”