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North Hills Monthly

Grieving Children and Families Find Comfort at the Highmark Caring Place

May 31, 2019 12:08PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

Highmark Caring Place is a child-focused, family-based program that provides peer support to grieving children and families. The organization, a program of the Caring Foundation, has four locations throughout the state, including one in Warrendale, which was established a decade ago. We spoke with Manager Andrea Lurier, Ph.D., about how the organization is making an impact in the community.

North Hills Monthly (NHM): How did the Highmark Caring Place get started?

Andrea Lurier (Lurier): The Caring Foundation was established in 1985 to meet the needs of uninsured children. Specifically, the Caring Foundation initiated The Caring Program for Children which later became the model for the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP).

In the mid-1990s, a new unmet need came to the forefront—the needs of grieving children. At that time, there were many programs for grieving adults; adults who had lost a spouse, a parent or a child. But as a society, we hadn’t considered what it might be like to be 5 or 10 years old and have a parent or sibling or grandparent die. These losses are tremendously difficult for children, and they often feel alone and different from their peers. As that understanding grew, we began to look around and see what might be available to support these children. At the time there was a pilot program, the Pittsburgh Center for Grieving Children, that was pioneering peer support programs. In 1997, the Caring Foundation brought that program under its umbrella and grew it. Now it is called the Highmark Caring Place.

NHM: What is its mission?

Lurier: First and foremost, we exist to raise awareness about the needs of grieving children and their need for support. We are dedicated to developing programs to meet those needs, and we are committed to making sure people in the community can have the knowledge and feel equipped to support children throughout the community. For example, we work with hundreds of schools and counselors and teachers so that they feel more confident helping grieving children when they’re at school. What is unique about the Caring Place is the family focus; that has elevated it to a very well-respected national model.

NHM: What demographic do you serve?

Lurier: We work with children of all ages, infants and toddlers all the way through age 18, and because of this, the most effective and safe and comfortable way to support children is to have a family-focused program. Children come with their entire family, so while they’re getting support, the extended family is as well.

NHM: Do you have any figures about the number of children who have lost a loved one?

Lurier: The consensus is that one in 20 children will experience the death of a parent before they graduate from high school. That is significant. But the other number that is even more startling is that 1/5 of children have had someone significant in their life die.

NHM: What is the scope of services offered by the Caring Place? 

Lurier: The Caring Place program is designed to help children discover that they are not alone in their grief; that there are other children and teens who have had similar experiences. Together they begin to share their stories and support one another.

As families call and enroll in our program, we place them in a ‘session,’ which is a group of 15 to 20 families. These families come together with a team of volunteers and staff for an evening program. The session meets weekly or bi-weekly for 10 meetings that are held in the evening and are divided into two parts.

First is community time—a chance for all of us to have dinner and be together and catch our breath. In the second hour, we break children into groups depending on ages; the adults have their support groups as well. We have a very small staff, about four or five of us, so we rely on hundreds of volunteers—they are the people that are in the groups with the families. We train them to be good listeners and teach them how to support these children; they are here to hear their stories. We could not do this program without an incredible group of volunteers.

We do a lot of activities focused on feelings because grief can bring up so many feelings that we’ve never even had before. We express feelings. We even have a room with a punching bag so children can express angry, frustrated feelings in a safe way.

We also work on our memories. Children are very afraid they’ll forget the person who died. We make memory boxes to give children a place to put things that remind them of their person who died.

When people do come to visit the Caring Place, what they find most transformative is to see the quilts. One of the ways children are invited to remember their person is to design and make a quilt square. They’re sewn together and turned into quilts; they’re stunning in their poignancy.

NHM: Is there any cost to families?

Lurier: The Caring Place is a signature program of Highmark, which is its primary funder. This has allowed us to serve all of our families at no cost. Highmark matches any contributions we receive from the community.

NHM: Can you elaborate about your partnership with schools?

Lurier: The school program is our newest program, and we’re very excited and proud of it. The history of our work with schools is that they played an important role in getting the word out in the community about the Caring Place. Counselors, teachers and fellow students were raising awareness that grief exists, and the program exists. Schools were so engaged: some raised money for us, and all did outreach for us. We call these schools Caring Team Schools, and across the state we have hundreds of them.

Two things happened from that. They thought, ‘Yes, we can let people know about the Caring Place program but how do we, as schools, better support our students while they are in school?’ And students were asking, ‘How do I support my classmates and friends who are grieving?’

School is a main part of their day, so one of the schools suggested Children’s Grief Awareness Day. We chose the Thursday before Thanksgiving, and this year it is on Nov. 21. This event has become a national and international day of recognition. Other grieving centers around the country have picked it up and joined us.

NHM: Besides volunteering to lead peer support groups, what are some other ways that the public can help?

Lurier: Our main fundraiser is the Merril Hoge Celebrity Golf Classic held in May. Many people will make a donation in honor or in memory of those that died. There are also third-party fundraisers.

One of the important things that people can do is help us to get the word out. So many of our families call because someone they trust has told them about us. I cannot say enough about the value of that. I would encourage anyone interested in supporting the Caring Place to call our general number—888-734-4073.

To learn more, visit the Highmark Caring Place at https://www.highmarkcaringplace.com/cp2/index.shtml.