Vicky Mirenda is a volunteer at the Home Nursing Agency's The Healing Patch, A Program for Loss and Hope for Grieving Children and Their Families.
The Altoona mom participated in the program with her daughters, Frankie, now 20, and Lexie, now 16, following the death of her husband and their father, Robert, from melanoma cancer 15 years ago.
Since getting help there, they have given back to the program in hopes of helping others struggling with the death of a loved one.
"People think you get over it. You never get over it," Mirenda said. "You learn to live with it."
The Mirendas aren't alone: One out of 20 children will have a parent die by age 16, and 1 out of 7 children will experience the death of a loved one by the time they graduate from high school, according to information from the Healing Patch.
The Healing Patch, which opened in 2007, has helped more than 500 children locally through its services, offered without charge.
Now the Mirror is asking the community to help support the program's work by naming it as the 2012 Season of Sharing recipient.
The Season of Sharing is the Mirror's holiday fundraiser, combining the power of the local newspaper, the expertise of the Central Pennsylvania Community Foundation and the generosity of central Pennsylvania readers.
"We came to learn about the Healing Patch and eventually selected them as this year's representative thanks to Jeanie Geist, who came to us and made a really passionate case for the work they do. And that's something we really value, when someone from the community contacts us and says, 'Here's a great cause that deserves to be highlighted,'" Mirror General Manager Ray Eckenrode said. "Grief is such a universal thing, but at the same time it's something that every person deals with differently, and that dichotomy makes the work the Healing Patch does very interesting and important."
The Healing Patch allows people to grieve as individuals but in the comfort of a group, Marketing Manager Amy Hanna said.
The Healing Patch is a "soothing place filled with so much care and non-judgment, and freedom to blindly feel your way through all you need to experience," she said.
Hanna lost her father, Paul, who was her best friend, 24 years ago. She said she wonders how her life would have been different, had she had a place like the Healing Patch to help her through her grief.
A "genuine warmth" and "compassion" comes from the program's volunteers, Healing Patch Manager Allison Stockley said.
Being selected as the Season of Sharing recipient is "so very touching," Stockley said. "Just the exposure of the program is priceless."
How it got started
Before the Healing Patch opened, the Home Nursing Agency recognized a need in the community for a grief program in the area, Stockley said.
"There were none or very few resources in the areas we serve [that were] specifically for children," Stockley said. "Even the libraries had few books on the subject. The closest resource was Highmark's Caring Place in Pittsburgh - two-plus hours away."
The agency "felt compelled to act" because a child's grief is "very different than adult grief and needs to be addressed as such," and also because of the "tremendous unmet need."
"Children having unresolved grief often experience unhealthy behaviors as adults - as grief as a child leaves a permanent imprint," Stockley said. "Our behavioral health programs were recognizing this, as was the education and medical community as they continued to see children left behind after a death of a parent, grandparent, sibling or friend."
How it helps
The Healing Patch has two locations - 5416 Sixth Ave., Altoona, and 118 Ebony Road, Ebensburg. Trained volunteers and a staff overseeing the operation run the peer-support program.
The Healing Patch also offers outreach services - the Bridge Program, in-school peer support groups, community education and the lending library.
The Bridge Program offers grief support to Home Nursing Agency's hospice families with children in the home, and connects them with bereavement services.
The in-school peer support groups help grieving children who cannot attend the center's program. Greater Johnstown High School offers the in-school peer support group and the program is targeting schools within Bedford and Somerset counties, because of those areas having less accessibility to the centers or other community resources, Stockley said.
The lessons would include small group discussion on the typical grieving process, identify resources and how a classmate can support a peer.
The Healing Patch also is actively implementing grief education in school health classes, Stockley said. A pilot program began in the Northern Bedford School District in the spring.
Community education includes public speakers on topics related to loss, grief, death and dying. The lending library has more than 400 grief-related resources available upon request to anyone in the community.
The Healing Patch is a free service that relies on donations, grants and fundraising events, such as the annual Patched Together rock concert benefiting the center.
"Donations play a critical role, ensuring that the Healing Patch program, whether at a center, in a home or school setting, is available now and in the future for grieving children and their families," Stockley said.
Debra Yahner-Golby, who attended the 2011 concert with her adopted daughters, Shyan and Angel, said at the time that the Healing Patch is a "terrific outlet" with "great people" that "gave me purpose again."
Her eldest daughter, Alissa Hoover, 27, was killed in a two-vehicle crash in 2010. The program helped her younger daughters cope with the loss. They were able to say things they wouldn't have said to her because she was in pain, too, and they didn't want to add to that. Other families there could understand their grief on a level that anyone who hadn't experienced loss could not, she said.
Children up to age 18 can enroll, and at least one parent or guardian enrolls along with them.
The youngest child the program has served was 2 years old, Stockley said.
Families meet twice a month during the school year in two-hour sessions. A meal is served and group sessions are held. Art, drama, storytelling and play allow children to express their feelings and relate with each other.
The centers have three primary rules - whatever is said there is held in confidence, everyone is entitled to physical and emotional safety and if someone is not ready to talk about something they can pass, Stockley said.
The ability to pass on an issue empowers them to do the work on their own schedule, she said.
What it's like there
A sense of comfort comes across when entering the Altoona center.
The front door opens into an open dining space and kitchen, leading to the wide archway of a large community room. Off the community room are rooms for sessions with children younger than 7 years of age, those ages 7 to 12, teens and adults.
What age child goes to what room is not a hard and fast rule. Sometimes a grieving child regresses and they are placed at a different developmental level, Stockley said. Regression is normal, she said.
It's also normal to feel alone or invisible, and for grief issues to come up at different developmental stages.
A child can show signs of regression, she said. He or she could also withdraw, act out or try to become a perfect student, for example.
Grief doesn't have to come out somberly.
"A lot of energy comes with grief, especially with kids, so it's nice to have a way to blow off that energy," Stockley said. "Grief is energy. It's just allowing a safe place to release it."
The Healing Patch encourages punching or yelling into a pillow, or smacking the floor to release energy in a non-harmful way.
Inside the room for the youngest children is a sandbox. A black coffin with a white cross painted on it sits among the other toys. A doll peeks out from the sand that has collected inside it.
Children cannot always grasp the concept that someone who has died is not coming back, Stockley said. They require repetition and support to process it, she said. Some toys help them re-create what they have experienced.
Younger children have short attention spans and can go in and out of grief quickly, Stockley said.
"Their play is their work," she said.
Finding common ground
The activities going on in the rooms are purposeful, she said.
A 9-year-old who becomes afraid of the dark can discover he or she is not the only one who feels that way, Stockley said. Relating with other children who are going through something similar normalizes the feelings they are experiencing, she said.
"Grief without a doubt is an equalizer," Stockley said.
Teens who might not otherwise socialize with one another in school or elsewhere can end up sharing a bond, Stockley said.
A change of school or moving to a new home as a result of death can cause someone to experience a secondary loss. Teens can also grieve the future, wondering if they will still be able to attend college or who will walk them down the aisle at their wedding, she said.
In the adult room, parents or guardians get the chance to talk about the impact of their loved one's death and how to help the child cope.
In helping a child's caregiver, the program is helping the child, Stockley said. She compares it to the emergency advice given on airplanes for an adult to put on their oxygen mask first so they can then help someone else.
Often adults will bring in a child for help, and end up realizing the help the program offers them, she said.
Everyone takes a different journey with grief on a different time frame, Stockley said. A new normal is created.
"The worst has already happened to these families," Stockley said. "Now, we're just helping them piece it back together."