Ele’s Place has been a pinnacle in the Lansing community for more than 20 years, guiding children through the troubled waters known as grief. Now, its unique programs are being planted throughout the state as they strive to provide every grieving child in Michigan access to compassionate support.
Michigan Nightlight: In your view, what makes your program innovative, effective or remarkable?
Ele’s Place Director of Programming Sarah Rockstad:
Ele’s Place was the first organization in Michigan solely devoted to supporting grieving children, and it has built a reputation as a leader in the field of children’s bereavement for over 20 years. Ele’s Place was a labor of love for its founder, Betsy Stover, whose daughter Ele died in 1989. Betsy made it her mission to help not only her three surviving children, but every grieving child in the greater Lansing area. Her passion has been matched by countless volunteers and staff members who put their hearts into their work to support the mission and make a difference in the lives of grieving children. As the organization has grown, it has focused on improving quality and expanding services, while continuing to maintain the personal touch that is so important to grieving children and their families. Ele’s Place has captured the hearts of the community in mid-Michigan and beyond, opening a second location in Ann Arbor in 2007.
What was the best lesson learned in the past year?
We learned that our school-based program, where we partner with area schools to bring an eight-week grief support Ele's Place programs recognize that grief is a normal reaction to loss, and that children have the capacity to heal more fully when they have the opportunity to share their feelings and experiences in a supportive environment with peers.
program to grieving students, has been enormously successful and will continue in the Lansing School District despite the changes the district’s schools are undergoing. This program began as a pilot and quickly proved to be an effective way to reach students who would not otherwise be able to attend Ele’s Place.
The school program is structured with specific goals for each session, including grief education, identifying feelings, sharing experiences, reducing isolation, identifying support systems, and commemorating the life of the deceased. A “code of safety” is established at the start of the program in order to ensure a respectful and caring atmosphere. Student evaluations show that 95 to 100 percent of participants feel that the group helped them understand that they are not alone in their grief, helped them share their feelings about the death, helped them feel understood, and helped them learn more positive ways to deal with their grief. Counselors report positive outcomes as well, such as students getting along better with others or having a more positive attitude at school.
Building on our success in Lansing, we have expanded to other school districts and will be adding more new schools in the 2012-2013 school year.
What was the hardest lesson learned in the past year?
It has been difficult to grow our Together Learning to Cope (TLC) program for children and their families coping with a family member’s cancer or other life threatening illness. We have learned that while this program is unique and extremely valuable to the families who have used it, the TLC program is still not well understood or well known in the community. Therefore, we have increased our outreach efforts to communicate the need to support children and their families from the point of diagnosis.
What really differentiates this program?
For most people, knowing what to say or do to help a grieving child doesn’t come naturally. Historically, the typical response has been to expect children to put the past behind them and move forward, underestimating the extent of their feelings, questions, and worries. Ele’s Place programs recognize that grief is a normal reaction to loss, and that children have the capacity to heal more fully when they have the opportunity to share their feelings and experiences in a supportive environment with peers.
The experience of being listened to, of truly being “heard” by someone who doesn’t offer their own opinions or advice, is very rare – especially for children. As adults, we want to make things better for children, or teach them life skills, but we often underestimate the thoughts and feelings that children learn to keep to themselves. Having the opportunity to share their feelings and experiences, and to connect with others who share similar feelings, helps to normalize the experience of grief These volunteers bring energy, love for children, and passion for the mission to their work and are an invaluable part of the program.
for children and teens in the Ele’s Place support groups. It can be a huge relief to learn that your feelings are normal and valid, and that others are also struggling with grief and learning to live without the person who died. Children are often reluctant to share with friends or schoolmates because they feel different; they sometimes feel they have somehow been singled out for the awful loss that has occurred in their family. There is tremendous strength and hope that comes from the human connections that develop in a support group that honors and respects the unique grief experience of each person.
What are the keys to success for your program?
Well over 100 active volunteers facilitate the support groups every week, making it possible to provide support to hundreds of children and their families each week. These volunteers bring energy, love for children, and passion for the mission to their work and are an invaluable part of the program. The staff is committed to the highest professional standards and always looks for ways to improve the programming and reach more children. Further, the community has embraced the program and provides outstanding support through private donations and corporate support.
An example of a community/corporate event is our annual 5K race. Jackson National Life Insurance Company provides the venue, monetary support, and volunteers. The race is a fun, family-friendly event that many of our program participants attend. Many families form teams to honor the memory of the person who died, complete with special t-shirts they’ve designed with pictures or words that memorialize that person. While he event is a fundraiser for Ele’s Place, it also introduces others in the community to our services, provides a way for the community to support our work, and offers an opportunity for families to publicly honor and remember their loved ones.
How do you innovate programming? Where do the ideas come from? How do you know if they are going to work?
Our programming comes from a combination of professional expertise and knowledge of best practices, along with a creative process of learning from experience, paying attention to how children and teens respond to group activities, and being open to inspiration. We network with other organizations in the country that provide similar services in order to share ideas, and continually evaluate our programs.
Activity ideas for preschool and kindergarten age children have been harder to find than those for older children, and we’ve had to be creative with ways to engage them. For example, in our groups we often talk about coping skills and do activities that help participants identify people, places, or things that bring them comfort. This is a difficult concept for very young children, so one of our more experienced volunteers developed an activity called “Comfort Camp.” We know that fear is an issue that all young children deal with, and we have learned by the way young children at Ele’s Place respond to books or activities about being scared that this is a big issue for grieving children who have every reason to worry about additional losses or changes. The Comfort Camp activity uses the elements of s’mores treats to illustrate the concepts of safety, comfort, and coping skills. We construct a tent out of fabric and have an electric log that glows like a campfire to enhance the camping effect. After having a book about a frightened bear read to them, and talking about what helped the bear feel safe, the children are guided in creating s’mores while comparing the parts of the treat to elements of coping. The graham crackers represent the foundation of the treat, just as home, school, or other places represent safe places for children. The marshmallow is soft like a pillow or favorite stuffed animal, and represents comfort. The chocolate is sweet and helps us feel better. Children are asked to name items that are comforting to them and talk about other things that help them feel better. Children love this activity and are able to identify people, places, activities and other things that help bring them comfort when they are afraid.
For adolescents, who are often passionate about music, we have developed activities that use music to help them share feelings or memories. Teens are invited to bring in music that expresses a memory or feeling about the person who died, and the group listens and discusses their reactions. Other times we have the adolescents discuss lyrics, or write their own lyrics to a song.