Erin’s House for Grieving Children celebrates 25 years of helping children, families in the Fort Wayne area

The campus of Erin's House for Grieving Children includes both an outdoor play area and room indoors where children meet peer support groups based on their ages. (Courtesy of Erin's House for Grieving Children)
Children take part in drawing and craft activities in their age-based peer support group as part of the process of working through their grief over the death of a loved one. (Courtesy of Erin's House for Grieving Children)
Natalie Turner, center, and her sons, Amarian Turner-Dunbar, 9, left, and Ja'Shawn Turner-Parks, 18, found help at Erin's House for Grieving Children after Amarian's father, Mark Dunbar, died unexpectedly in 2013. Dunbar also was a father figure for Turner-Parks. (Courtesy of the Turner family)
Susie Thomas, left, sought help at Erin's House for Grieving Children for her son and daughter, Melanie Cork, right, after her husband was killed in a car accident in 2000. Both Thomas and Cork now volunteer to help other families being assisted by Erin's House. (Courtesy of Susie Thomas and Melanie Cork)

Natalie Turner called Erin’s House for Grieving Children to ask how to tell her then-4-year-old son that his father had died unexpectedly. Susie Thomas’ pediatrician suggested she contact Erin’s House to help her children after her husband was killed in a car accident. As with so many other families over the past 25 years, Erin’s House provided them with a safe place to work through their grief and loss and to begin to heal.

“I feel grief and mental health are just as important as wellness and physical health,” Turner said.

Erin’s House will celebrate what staff call its “25th birthday” with a free Family Fun Day open house from 1 to 4 p.m. Aug. 25 at its campus at 5670 YMCA Park Drive West in northeast Fort Wayne. The event will include free food, drinks, a bounce house, dunk tank, face painting and more.

The nonprofit organization grew out of a need recognized following the tragic death of a Fort Wayne family’s child. Erin Farragh was about two months away from her 6th birthday when she died unexpectedly at home on Jan. 5, 1989. Her parents could find support groups for themselves, but they couldn’t find any grief help for Erin’s younger sister and brother, information in an Erin’s House newsletter said.

A family friend, Tracie Martin, who was attending a national Junior League conference, learned there about a special project at a center for grieving children in Cincinnati, the newsletter said. Martin and other local Junior League members at the conference brought the idea back to Fort Wayne. A feasibility study showed a need here, and local organizers opened Erin’s House in 1993.

Children grieve differently than adults, which can be confusing to parents, said Cindy Maldonado-Schaefer, Erin’s House director of operations.

“Children grieve in bursts,” Maldonado-Schaefer said. “When a kid feels that grief or emotion, it’s going to spring out.” Children also may have a delayed reaction to the loss of a loved one because they may not be able to process the loss at that moment, she said. How children process grief also changes as they get older.

Erin’s House helps youngsters understand their feelings, Maldonado-Schaefer said. “We see ourselves as a preventative program. Everybody has the ability to heal themselves.”

Erin’s House has served about 19,500 people since it opened, said Debbie Meyer, who has served as executive director for the past 10 years. The total includes children, parents, guardians, and students and teachers served through school programs. The organization, which also provides telephone support help to an additional 500 to 600 people a year, serves families in northeast Indiana, northwest Ohio and southeastern Michigan, Meyer said. All services are provided free to families, Meyer said. Erin’s House, which receives no government or medical insurance funding, raises operating money through donations, grants and fundraisers.

The most common reasons people seek help at Erin’s House are, in order, the death of a mother, grandparent, sibling and father, Meyer said. The causes of those deaths have changed dramatically in recent years, however. When she started 10 years ago, the most common causes were a heart attack, cancer and car accident. Now the most frequent causes of death affecting Erin’s House children are homicide, suicide and drug overdose, she said. Erin’s House services include peer support groups, programs at schools, crisis response, camps and retreats and telephone support.

“We’ve really seen our numbers go up with the opioid crisis and with suicide,” Meyer said, noting drug overdose and suicide now cause the deaths that bring about 35 percent of families to Erin’s House.

The organization, which has operated in a few different locations during its 25 years, moved to its current site five years ago. The $2.75 million project is designed specifically for children and for the Erin’s House mission. When families first come to Erin’s House, staff meet with them in a homey welcome room, Meyer said. Support groups meet at 6:30 p.m. on various weeknights during the school year, and each family chooses the night that works best for them.

On each of those nights, all of the families gather together for a pizza dinner. Then youngsters go to the peer support group for their age group – ages 3-5, 6-9, 10-13 and teens, Meyer said. Each group meets in a separate room decorated and set up for that age group. Parents and adults go to their own support group, and families are welcome to continue coming to Erin’s House as long as they want to, Meyer said.

Natalie Turner said the death of her partner, Mark Dunbar, on July 15, 2013, hit their family hard. Dunbar was the father of their son, Amarian Turner-Dunbar, now age 9, and like a stepfather to her older son, Ja’Shawn Turner-Parks, now 18. About two weeks later, her sister’s only son also was murdered, Turner said.

She and her children started going to Erin’s House in August 2013. Turner-Parks said others in the teen support group also had lost a father, and they helped him cope with and talk about his loss and grief. “I know how to deal with it, and before I didn’t know how,” he said.

Amarian, who was 4 when he started going to Erin’s House, said he liked doing crafts and talking in the group about their weekends and the loved one they had lost. He also liked going to the Volcano Room, a padded room filled with pillows to throw and paper to shred as kids release their emotions.

“You just play with friends and make new friends,” Amarian said.

Turner and Thomas both liked attending the parent group, where people shared experiences and ideas as they worked toward moving forward in life.

“They taught us grief is not something that goes away,” Turner said. “You can have easier days. But in a moment, … it will take me right back to July 15,” she said.

Thomas, 50, said she made some lifetime friends in the parent group. Her son, Ryan, and daughter, Melanie Cork, also benefited from the children’s groups after their father, late Fort Wayne Police Department officer Bradley Matteson, died in October 2000 while on duty. “I didn’t know what I was doing – I was 8 years old,” said Cork, now 26, who married and just gave birth to a son. “They treated me different at school, but at Erin’s House, they didn’t.”

Both Thomas and Cork now are among the more than 130 trained volunteer facilitators who work with youngsters or adults in the support groups, said Ellen Roemke, Erin’s House volunteer director.

Another 70 volunteers help with other aspects of the program, such as serving pizza to families before they attend their support groups, Roemke said.

Looking ahead to the next five to 10 years, Erin’s House hopes to become a hub for training people for other children’s grief centers that are getting started, Meyer said. She also wants to be prepared to help children, families and administrators or leaders in case of a school shooting or similar tragedy.

But Meyer said the No. 1 mission will remain the same as it has for the past 25 years: help children and families recover from the loss of a loved one.

For more about Erin’s House for Grieving Children, call 423-2466 9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays or go to www.erinshouse.org.

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