Adults and children fill the tables and a buzz of conversation accompanies a dinner served by volunteers from one of many Community Partner organizations. Parents keep an eye on children, who greet their friends and help themselves to another dessert. Some find their way over to visit tonight’s service dog, lying on its side like a furry, oversized rug, waiting patiently for an after dinner hug. Seated around the tables are members of families living with grief, due to many different kinds of loss – death, divorce, abandonment, separation, military deployment, incarceration, deportation or other life-altering events. Seated with them are staff and trained volunteer facilitators, dedicated to companioning others in their time of loss – to break the isolation of grief and foster a sense of hope through a peer-to-peer support program called Healing Hearts.
After dinner, groups break off for peer discussion and activities. Adults, teens and elementary-aged children make their way to separate areas. Free child care is available for children younger than four. My co-facilitator and I meet with fourth and fifth graders, sharing first about how our week has gone. We share positives and negatives – our brags and bummers. Then we move into a story, an activity or game and conversation dealing with a theme for the week. Our curriculum supplies the themes and several choices for activities, so we tailor the plans to our groups. This particular day, we talk about ways to cope with loss, and we share positive memories. We tie buttons of different shapes and colors on a string to help us remember memories of our loved ones that help us smile. I’m struck by the empathy I see in a young man who listens so closely to his friend’s memory that he hands her a button he planned to use, but thinks she may want to go with her story.
Healing Hearts of Waukesha County, Inc. was established as a 501 (c) (3) public charity organization in 2010, their mission being “to serve and support grieving children and their families”. Since then, it has helped more than 900 participants representing over 349 families. It began with 12-week spring and fall sessions in Waukesha, and has grown to also offer shorter spring, summer and fall sessions in Oconomowoc. With the help of Carroll University, all materials have been translated into Spanish and Healing Hearts offers bilingual volunteers to serve our Spanish-speaking families.
I learned about Healing Hearts when my church became a Community Partner of the program, and was recruited as a volunteer facilitator by my friend, Chris Beck, the Executive Director at the time. Her eyes lit up at the mention of the organization so close to her heart and misted as she passionately recalled the struggles she saw families overcome. How could I say no? I was trained by Melissa Minkley, who has a Master’s Degree in Social Work and has been with Healing Hearts since its inception. Melissa is following Chris’ capable footsteps as the current Executive Director of the organization. I’ve only volunteered as a facilitator for three sessions thus far, but the relationships I’ve made and the compassion I’ve witnessed have made me a lifetime advocate!
Here are some comments from some past participants (taken from the Healing Hearts brochure):
- Healing Hearts takes my dark clouds away and brings the sun (8-year-old)
- It helps me talk things through. I feel like I have more people to trust. (13-year-old)
- On your worst day, you can look forward to going to Healing Hearts. It gives a little bit of light. (15-year-old)
- Healing Hearts is a place to take these feelings of grief and sadness in a world that usually doesn’t want to hear about them. (Adult)
If you are interested in participating, volunteering, or becoming a Community Partner with Healing Hearts, you can click here to learn more about it at the Healing Hearts website.
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