Loss is not easy. When it affects a child, the difficulties of navigating emotions and changes can be even more traumatic. Before 2014, there was no place for children and their families to turn when facing one of the hardest experiences they may encounter.
Seeing a strong need, John McKelvey, Director of the Toni & Trish House, an Auburn-based non-profit that helps the terminally ill, reached out to Camille Gerace Nitschky to start a grief center for children in the Great Lakes Bay Region.
The first of its kind in this area, the mission of the Children’s Greif Center is to provide a healing environment for children, teens and their families who are grieving a death. Trained mentors and volunteers help to heal the wounds of losing a loved one through peer groups, and participants often use art, dance, storytelling and theater to help connect with others and themselves while working through their loss. Camille Gerate Nitschky, Executive Director of the Children's Grief Center
As Executive Director, Camille was given the task of establishing this new non-profit. Since that time, the organization has positively impacted many families in the region. We sat down with her to discuss her work and the exciting growth looking ahead.
Q: Camille, can you tell us what brought you to this work, and also tell us about the start of the Children’s Greif Center?
A: I have an art degree and am also a photographer. I have always used creativity for my own personal growth and I practice therapeutic massage, so that helps me understand the impact of grief on the body physically, and to also help children use art as a means to express your feelings.
I also really believe in the peer support model we use with our clients. It gives a therapeutic value of having someone who is experienced in grief share that experience with others to help them heal and do the emotional work involved in doing so.
After starting the Children’s Grief Center we quickly grew to two Midland locations and then expanded to Saginaw. Now, after four years, we are flourishing and I have the best staff and team of volunteers anyone could ask for. It’s been wonderful.
Q: What range of clients do you currently serve?
A: We serve any child who has experienced the death of someone close to them, if the child affected is between the ages of 5 and 18. We also have a student group at Northwood University, and we are hoping to start a student group at Saginaw Valley State University as well.
Q: That’s wonderful news! What is your service area?
A: We serve the entire Great Lakes Bay Region. We combined our Midland sites, have one center in Saginaw, and we are starting a Bay City group in January. We have also have clients who come all the way from the Thumb, Mt. Pleasant and Gladwin.
The next closest grief center in the region is Ele’s Place in Flint. There is also Michael’s Place is in Traverse City, and Ann Arbor, Lansing and Grand Rapids also have grief centers. We talk to each other to help provide support in their areas and send families to wherever is best for them. We all collaborate to serve the family in a way that works best for them.
Q: You have mentioned some new groups starting. How is your organization expanding?
A: We have started to do school groups, in a limited 4-6 week program. We work with the school counselors and bring the program to the school. We have students that come to help the others work through the program, and the counselors attend the group to help students navigate their grief.
Heritage High School has had a group that is ongoing throughout the school year. We have partnered with Heartland Hospice working in Handy Middle School. We had a teen group at Bay City Central High School as well.
We are hoping with the launch of our “good grief bags” made available with a grant through the Big Give, teachers and counselors will have resources to lend out to students, including books that are grief related and age appropriate for their school.
Additionally, we are hoping to provide grief groups to Midland Public Schools in the future. We do a lot of outreach to different organizations, and we provide mini grief trainings for staff at organizations that work with a lot of families and children.
Q: That is a fantastic expansion! With all of this hard work, how is your staff equipped to help deal with the stress that can come from working in such an emotionally impactful job?
A: Our work environment is a place where we see the effects of loss and death on a daily basis. And we are constantly reminded of the priorities in our own lives. We try to practice a family-first policy with our own families. As Director, my approach is to have my staff live their lives without regrets. This means having their own sense of well-being so we can be effective, present and so we can listen to others.
Q: Do you have any resources for adults to turn to for help while grieving as well?
A: We have a list of 40 different grief groups for adults in the region with specifics to the type of loss and grief they are dealing with. We can help direct those to resources for families experiencing child loss through miscarriage to groups for survivors of suicide that exist for adults.
We are non-denominational but are happy to facilitate trainings for churches and faith-based organizations so they could add a children’s grief group to their already existing adult grief share programs.
According to the 2010 census, 900 children in the Great Lakes Bay Region experienced the death of a parent. This statistic doesn’t include the death of any other family member and the need has continued to grow. Nationally, on an average, 1 out of 18 children experience the death of a parent.
For more information about the Children’s Greif Center, visit http://childrensgriefglbr.org/ or call their office at (989) 495-9335.