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Lutz facility helps kids cope with grieving

Support group facilitators Bradley Yost, Daniel Partridge and Edith Montes light a candle in the memory of lost loved ones with a group of 3- to 5-year-olds earlier this month at the Suncoast Kid’s Place.
Published Apr. 25, 2014

LUTZ

Just past the farms and grazing horses in Lutz sits one little house that serves as a haven to grieving children.

The Suncoast Kid's Place, founded by the Van Dyke Church, provides a place where children can feel safe and open up about the death of their loved ones.

Bright pinks, blues and greens with rainbows, flowers and teddy bears fill each of the six rooms.

One room is dedicated to play, with a basketball hoop and ping-pong, air hockey and foosball tables.

This is where, as in many of the rooms, the kids form peer relationships that are important to the healing process.

"Some of the families have become so close, they go on vacation together," program director Deborah Brooks said.

Another room re-creates a hospital room, but rather than hospital blue, a tree of life decorates the wall. In there, by playing doctor, kids can begin to associate the hospital with more positive memories. They take turns lying in bed, checking each other's blood pressure and goofing around.

The punching bag room draws kids in. Surrounded by bright red, almost orange, and yellow padded walls, the bag is a great way to release anger. One boy, the 10-year-old son of Julie Hawkins, was taking a tour of the center and dashed directly into the room.

Referred by a counselor friend, the Hawkins family hopes their son can find acceptance in the loss of his cousin a year and a half ago.

"He seemed okay, but now it's bubbling. Every time he hears the song from the video they played at the funeral, he freaks out."

They had sought help from their pastor, but they needed more, and they couldn't find a place that was kid-friendly until now.

A majority of the grieving families are referred to the Suncoast Kid's Place by counselors, especially from schools. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office also refers some of their high-profile cases to the center's services.

Across from the punching bag room, the children tack pictures of their lost loved ones on a memory wall. From grandparents to parents, siblings and friends, everyone is remembered.

Outside, thanks to a grant from New York Life, a patio was transformed into a place of meditation, complete with the soothing sounds of a running stream filled with fish.

The center of the house is the talking circle. Surrounded by plump pillows and stuffed animals, this is where the children talk about what happened. The words "I am here for you, you are here for me, we are here for each other," complete the safe haven.

Each hour and a half session starts with the same check-in. The kids introduce themselves, share the name of their loved one who had passed away, and talk about how they are feeling at that moment. Some days the children speak about their father being shot in front of them, or the fact that "everyone leaves me."

Other days, silence fills the air.

But whether the group proves talkative or reflective, being surrounded by people going through the same thing helps in the healing process.

Therapy dogs provided by Canines for Christ can't hurt either. The children couldn't wait to hug the half-shepherd, half-wolf dog that surprised them at the beginning of one session.

Another house on the property is dedicated to teenager and caregiver groups. It is filled with more neutral tones, light blues and grays, and big couches. Though the older children are more comfortable with sitting and talking, they also play games, such as scrambled eggs. During that activity, they write down what they are angry about on a canvas, and throw paint-filled eggs to cover up what they wrote, releasing some of that anger.

"Grief is messy," Brooks said. "Doing it that way they can get rid of their big anger, which usually leads to conversation."

Caregivers groups go on simultaneously with the kids groups, but they have the choice to talk about what's upsetting them, or to follow the same curriculum as their children. Most choose the latter so they can work through their grief together.

The facility is patterned after the Dougy Center for Grieving Children in Portland, Ore. Suncoast Kid's Place founder Cheryl Jackson toured and trained there when the Van Dyke Church first converted their home.

The services are not limited to the church property, but extend to Brandon's Bell Shoals Baptist Church, to elementary, middle, high schools and alternative schools throughout the area, and to incarcerated youth programs. In all, they serve around 1,800 people.

"We started getting a whole bunch of calls from the Brandon area so Cheryl started making calls to churches in the area to see if anyone wanted to form a partnership with us, and they opened their doors," Brooks said.

Now, three years later, the Bell Shoals Baptist Church is a meeting place for the same type of groups, except the whole family can meet on the same night. At the Lutz location, there are age groups that meet only on certain days and times, but at Brandon they hold separate groups on the same night, to cater to the whole family.

"It's important for the whole family to be a part of the process because if they aren't talking about their grief at home, it makes them feel like they can't talk about it at all," Brooks said.

Her hard work is paying off. All of the families agreed that they are seeing an improvement in their children, who tend to lash out at school or at home, unsure of what they are feeling. Eliezer Florean's 4-year-old has been attending the program since he lost his grandmother. "He became very quiet after, but this place helped give him a reasonable explanation. I've seen an 80 percent improvement."

Arielle Waldman can be reached at awaldman@tampabay.com.

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