New Hope is just what grieving kids need
March 14, 2010 | By Scott Maxwell, TAKING NAMES
I'm sitting cross-legged on my little mat.
Twelve of us - seven children and five adults - form a circle, tossing a brightly colored beach ball back and forth.
It looks like play time. Only there is nothing playful about what brought us together.
The children have lost their mommies and daddies. To disease, suicide, even murder.
And the ball we are tossing is not just any ball. It has words written all around it, scrawled in black Sharpie. The words ask whoever catches the ball to say something about the family member they lost - how they feel, how they found out about the death, a favorite memory.
One after another, the kids offer soft-spoken answers: "Really sad." ... "My mom woke me up at 3 o'clock in the morning" ... "I used to like when we played games."
The session is relatively uneventful - until it's about to wrap up.
That's when 7-year-old Bobby stares at the ball for a few minutes in silence and then finally jabs his finger at one of the questions.
"That one!" he declares, a tinge of anger in his high-pitched voice.
"Read it to us, Bobby," a grief facilitator calmly responds.
The question asks whether anyone ever teases you about the death of your loved one.
"Yes!" he suddenly screams. "It happens every time we have a field trip at school. They say: ‘You don't have a mommy. You don't have a mommy.'"
My eyes start to well up. I don't know quite what to do.
But the other children in the circle look back at Bobby with knowing eyes.
They understand. They have been there. Without saying a thing, they make his grief slightly more bearable, simply by sitting with him in the circle.
These other children, ranging in age from 7 to 12, are his support system ... even when they don't realize it.
The scene, both heart-breaking and inspiring, plays out three nights a week in a nondescript two-story house in Maitland. In another room are children even younger. Everyone there has lost a parent, sibling or other close relative.
The kids talk about the painful things first and then spend the rest of the evening playing together - painting, air hockey, even using boxing gloves to pound out their frustrations on a punching bag.
This is the home of New Hope for Kids, a nonprofit organization that provides grief counseling to anyone who needs it.
"It would tear me apart to try to charge these people something," said the group's executive director, Dave Joswick. "I mean, these people are going through the worst times of their lives."
The agency's entire budget comes from donations and fundraisers. And it is doing well, thriving even.
But the agency is at a crossroads.
Now serving more than 600 parents and children a year, the group wants to move into a bigger building - and is consequently wading into the world of local politics.
Suddenly, people who have focused solely on nurturing children are wrestling with planning boards, buffer zones and concerned residents.
Mayor Doug Kinson has already heard from neighbors who are concerned about the proposed location on Wymore Road, just north of Eatonville and abutting a residential neighborhood.
"There are some who don't want anything built here," Kinson said. But others just want to ensure there are the proper buffers. The matter is slated to come to a head at a council meeting next month.
"We really want to keep them," the mayor said, adding that he is optimistic they will work something out. "They provide such a great service - not just to Maitland, but to all of Central Florida."
He's right. And it's not just the children who need New Hope's help.
While the children were playing around upstairs on this Tuesday night, their parents sat in a circle down below.
The ceiling was thumping with the sound of little feet jumping up and down.
Beneath them, parents were sobbing.
One newly widowed mother was explaining that she could no longer afford her house.
Another woman had just learned that her grown daughter had lain naked in the morgue for several days before she was cremated. She was racked with guilt.
The facilitator was there to help. She suggested that the mother forced to move into an apartment allow her two young boys to pick out their favorite colors for the paint. That way, they'd feel more like it was their home.
A widower on the other side of the circle spoke up to console the other troubled mother. He told her he had experienced the same guilt when he learned how long his wife had lain naked in the cold, sterile environment - and that it was not their fault.
The stories continued, one after the other. Happy memories. Scary days ahead. Grandparents nervous about suddenly becoming parents again.
By the end of the night, most felt better. The grief was still there. But talking about it helped.
And Joswick knows that there are many more people who need to talk ... and many more Bobbys who need the chance to throw around a beach ball.