This Unique Nonprofit Provides Support, Light in the Darkest of Times
Kelsey Andrews remembers her husband, Michael, a Massachusetts state trooper, being larger than life.
“He was full of life, full of energy,” she told BusinessWest as she recalled how quickly and how profoundly so many lives were altered when Michael was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma in June 2017 and passed away two short months later. And also how a big a void was left in all those lives.
Kelsey, mother to now-12-year-old Madeline, was abruptly pressed to take on the role of both parents, all while grieving the loss of her husband and trying to raise a grieving child — something no parent is ever prepared or equipped to do.
She recalls thinking — actually, knowing — that she needed help, but didn’t know where to find it or if it even existed.
“I wanted my daughter to be around kids who are, unfortunately, going through a similar situation, and for me to be around people who have gone through the same thing,” said Andrews, adding that, through a co-worker, she eventually found a unique nonprofit that provided all this in the form of free peer support to grieving families, especially children.
Creating just such a place was the mission of several friends and loved ones touched by Rick Thorpe, an individual who was himself larger than life in many ways. And so they gave it his name.
Thorpe, a former football star at Minnechaug High School and 1984 graduate, was among the more than 1,100 people who died in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11; he left behind his wife, Linda, and newborn daughter, Alexis.
After his death, friends — and there were many of them — felt the need to memorialize him and searched for ways to do so.
They started with a scoreboard placed in his honor at Minnechaug’s football field — the message written across it read “In memory of Rick Thorpe #3 – Class of 1984” — and later a memorial fund, a charity golf tournament, and scholarships. But they wanted something even more impactful.
For inspiration, they turned to Rick’s daughter, Alexis. The bereavement center they established in her father’s name was created in her honor.
Here, children and families can talk about their own experiences, or simply be in the presence of others who are facing similar situations.
That’s something Executive Director Diane Murray and Program Director Therese Ross say can be incredibly comforting for grieving families. While each person experiences grief differently, they noted, what helps most is being with those who have gone through something similar — one of the main factors that encouraged Kelsey to walk in the door.
“It’s a unique grief journey, but it’s also a universal experience,” said Ross. “To hear from other people how they manage when their child says this or does that, it’s real boots on the ground, people living it, and it’s really helpful.”
Above all else, Rick’s Place provides families with a safe space to not only grieve the loss of their loved one, but keep their memory alive, and does it in a way that people are surrounded by those who understand what they are going through.
“To be around others who understand is the single most important thing we do,” Murray said. “There’s just something about being around others who understand a little of what you’re going through that helps diminish the isolation they feel.”
And that’s why this unique nonprofit has been chosen as a Difference Maker for 2020.
Bill Scatolini, president of Scatolini Insurance in Wilbraham, was a teammate of Rick Thorpe’s at Minnechaug. He describes Rick as a selfless, caring person who always considered others first.
“Rick was the type of person that always thought about the person sitting in front of him,” he recalled. “I would consider Rick to be a giver, whether it was helping somebody in the street or in a soup kitchen. That’s the type of person he was — always trying to look out for the other person’s welfare and see if he could help.”
The nonprofit formed in his honor has taken on this same quality, and it carries out its mission largely through volunteers — facilitators who complete a comprehensive, 17-hour training that addresses bereavement, child development, reflective practice, and group-curriculum planning and facilitation. The board of directors is also completely volunteer-run.
All those involved understand that, according to research, unexamined grief in children can lead to worsening mental-health issues in the long term, including poor school performance, anxiety, depression, addiction issues, and increased risk of suicide.
To help those who are grieving, Rick’s Place offers free programs on site at its home base in Wilbraham for kids ages 5 to 18, and separates groups by age to provide specific activities for each age group. For example, younger children may focus more on arts and crafts to illustrate how their grief makes them feel, while older kids may do more journaling.
The nonprofit also provides eight-week grief groups to schools in the Pioneer Valley, and has recently added a family night once a month where anyone can come in and share their story.
“It’s a unique grief journey, but it’s also a universal experience. To hear from other people how they manage when their child says this or does that, it’s real boots on the ground, people living it, and it’s really helpful.”
It’s this sharing of stories, of common emotions and challenges, that makes Rick’s Place so unique and impactful.
“Madeline’s been a trooper through the whole thing; she’s been very strong,” Kelsey said. “Rick’s place has been wonderful for her, just being around kids that have also experienced loss, knowing that other kids have been through it and she’s not alone.”
This concept of not being alone is at the very heart of Rick’s Place, said Murray, noting that the program began with six kids and four families, and has now served nearly 245 families.
Before finding Rick’s Place, both Ross and Murray served in education roles, and say that, while they loved their previous jobs, they can now truly feel the impact they are making.
“It’s been, quite literally, the most rewarding work of my life,” Murray said. “Being an educator was wonderful, but the way we touch lives here is so important to the families.”
Ross, who has a unique connection to the families that walk through the doors, agreed. She lost her husband to cancer and became a single parent to three children, and she said her experience with loss keeps her present and allows her to remember that each person’s journey is different.
“Just because my husband died doesn’t mean my experience is exactly the same as someone else’s because her husband died,” she explained. “It’s feeling like I’m in those shoes, and I’m farther out than they are now, but boy, do I remember the fog of that first week, month, year, multiple years. It keeps me present in what is the hard journey of grief.”
Both she and Murray emphasized that grief may also include laughter and happiness when remembering a loved one, and they try to normalize that as much as possible. During group activities, they may include projects that help keep a bond of connection to a loved one, such as memory boxes or dreamcatchers.
But, as they noted, each grief experience is different, and with the very young it may also include not fully understanding what’s happening, in which case things get a little trickier.
“We know that preschoolers and kindergartners often do not understand the permanence of grief,” said Murray. “Parents may think they have things under control, and then the child might say, ‘OK, but is she coming to my soccer game?’”
That’s just one of many difficult — sometimes seemingly impossible — questions that parents must try to answer as they navigate an extremely difficult time.
“It’s hard to parent in the first place, but then you have the challenge of parenting a grieving child,” said Ross. “It’s a daunting experience.”
While Rick’s Place does its best to assist parents facing a situation like this, it also encourages adults to find an outlet with either a counselor or a bereavement group themselves so they can work with their own grief while being present for their child’s grieving process.
The agency is currently midway through a comprehensive strategic plan to examine possible paths to more sustainable growth, while continuing to provide the services so many families desperately need.
Coping with the loss of a loved one is a struggle that, while not often talked about, is more common than most realize.
And for folks like the Andrews family, Rick’s Place is more than just a place: it’s a family.
“They are always here for me and my daughter if we ever need anything,” Kelsey said. “Just being with the people that work here, the volunteers, the other parents, grandparents, that have unfortunately gone through loss as well, has just been a wonderful support system.”
A support system that emphasizes it’s not about keeping a brave face, but being honest about what it means to be grieving.
A support system that fosters a caring, judgment-free, open environment to anyone who walks through the door.
A support system that encourages people to try to see the light, even in the darkest of times.
“You can choose to let the loss define you positively or negatively,” said Ross. “That doesn’t mean, when you choose to define it positively, that you’re not paying attention to the pain of it. It’s working with the pain to still continue to grow.”
That’s what Rick’s Place helps people do. And that’s why this agency is a real Difference Maker.
Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]