WillMar expands its highly successful Grief Reach program

In 2010 WillMar Center began its relationship with Impact100 Sonoma, receiving its first operating grant of $2,500.  We were able to introduce Impact100 members to our services that provide free and essential peer grief support for children, teens, and their families, who are grieving the death of a loved one, and for those living with family members within the Sonoma Valley suffering from a life-changing illness or injury.  For more than a decade, WillMar Center has maintained its status as northern California’s primary (and free) grief support program and only stand-alone agency from Los Angeles, CA to Portland, OR.

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WillMar Center is also part of the Sonoma County Office of Education’s SOS Emergency Services Team, collaborating with hospice emergency services throughout Sonoma County.  It was the 2012 Impact100 Community $9,000 Grant, “WillMar on the Go!” that made it possible for the Center to be at the ready with appropriate psycho-educational materials, grief assessments, and art supplies when emergency grief support services are requested for any of the Sonoma Valley School District elementary, middle school, and high school campuses.  Thanks to Impact100, WillMar is ready at a moment’s notice to provide thousands of children, teachers, and school community members with immediate services, greatly diminishing the effects of trauma caused by a death or sudden illness within their school communities.

All of WillMar Center’s peer grief support programming applies powerful elements of creativity and healing intrinsic to the Expressive Arts therapies.  This type of programming provides a counterbalance to loss via age appropriate methods of communication and leads to healthy expression of strong emotions. It is through the languages of art, music, and drama that youth are able to share their unique stories and memories while deepening their common connections of struggle, sadness, and healing. In utilizing the expressive arts, WillMar’s group members are offered ways of safely exploring the many facets of their grief and work toward reconfiguring their lives. The act of creating is a transformative, healing process, helping youth gain a sense of self-control and wholeness while enhancing their ability to understand, cope, and communicate.

152_Impact100.mmIn 2013, WillMar Center submitted a proposal to expand its highly successful pilot program, Grief Reach, to provide peer grief support services in Sonoma Valley’s elementary schools.  As a finalist, we were excited to receive $20,000, of which $5,000 went directly toward improving the physical aspects of the Expressive Arts program. This included purchasing a new art supply cabinet, art tables, kitchen counter/cabinets, and refrigerator – creating a well-organized and welcoming atmosphere for grieving children and teens to express themselves.  An additional $600 of the grant provided the purchase of art supplies, while the remaining $14,400 of the awarded funds went directly toward WillMar’s essential grief support services for children and teens.

Now in its second year, Grief Reach, has received additional2013-04-17 05.29.13 funding from the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers and a one year $25,000 grant from New York Life Foundation. This has enabled the program to offer grief assessment and ongoing weekly grief groups to three of our school district’s elementary schools (approximately 1048 children). Our goal is to set provide necessary grief support to all elementary-aged children who are not able to attend WillMar’s in-house support groups.

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Virginia and Isiah

The heart and soul of WillMar Center consists of 53 volunteers (10 of which are teens) who together donate more than 9,000 hours of consistent love and safety to the grieving children and families participating in our program.  Once again, Impact has made a difference as five of Willmar’s adult volunteers are also members of Impact100!  One such member, Virginia Bertelsen, shared her experiences at WillMar at an Impact100 meeting last September.  She visits the center with her trusted friend – her dog, Isiah.  Virginia described three critical needs for those suffering grief:  safety, security, and someone to listen.  “The greatest thing we can do is to listen. I learned from my dog how to do that.  Isiah doesn’t talk back – he provides unconditional love.”  The healing connection that animals have with the humans in their lives is a wondrous mystery, and one that has been beautifully incorporated at WillMar.  Isiah is joined by Bob and Max to create the “dream team” of volunteer grief support dogs!

The staff, volunteers, and participants of WillMar Center are all very grateful for the belief and trust shared by the women of Impact100 Sonoma.  Thank You for being an essential part of WillMar’s Community of Hope & Healing… you all shine a light in the heart of every child who receives support at WillMar Family Grief & Healing Center.

Written by Barbara Cullen, Executive Director
WillMar Family Grief & Healing Center
Photos courtesy of WillMar Center