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UIX: Children help each other heal, share and grow at Ele's Place

Nicole Rodammer

The children who come to Ele's Place are often grieving and emotionally blocked up. At a young age, they might not know how to process the death of a  loved  one or who to turn to for support. But through peer support group programs and new friendships with other children who can relate, Ele's Place becomes a stage for compassion and growth.
The doors to Ele's Place, a healing center for grieving children and teens, work on different principles of engineering. Sadness might enter, but it doesn't leave.

The children who come to Ele's Place are often grieving and emotionally blocked up. At a young age, they might not know how to process death, or who to even turn to for support. But through peer support group programs and new friendships with other children who can relate, Ele's Place becomes a stage for compassion and growth.

"People think it’s very sad here, but it’s the opposite. We are a type of relief for people,” says Nicole Rodammer, Managing Director of Ele’s Place in Grand Rapids. "The greatest thing in the world is, for us, is to see a child open up and talk about what happened. It takes a little bit sometimes. People don’t come in and immediately start speaking but they’re making friends that will last a lifetime. It’s not a lot of sad, it’s a lot of smiling, and laughing, and play."

On Mondays and Thursdays, children ages 3 to 18 and their parents attend the programs at Ele’s Place. The main building was once the Third Reformed Church parish house. Ele’s Place rents the house along with extra space in the neighboring church on Monday and Thursday nights for its non-denominational programming.

The children are split into groups based on age: pre-K, early elementary, upper elementary, middle school, and high school. There is also a young adult group, for 18 to 25-year-olds, only held Thursday nights. Volunteer facilitators lead each kids’ group, where Rodammer says peer support and communication provide healing.

"It’s not counseling, it’s not therapy,” she says. "We really rely on the kids to talk to each other through activities, coloring things, movement, a lot of projects, and music."

Dealing with Grief
One of the Ele’s Place social workers, LuAnn Arnson, says children do very well with their peers, and Ele’s is a safe place for them to open up.

"The fact of what we know is that children grieve in doses, they don’t grieve like adults do,” Arnson says. "You may get the impression that they’re over it or done, but it’s really contrary."

Many of the children who come to Ele’s arrive shy and austere, Arnson says, but transformation eventually takes place.

"They come in alone and afraid and get in a group and they come out with a best friend,” she says. "Everyone in there has had a death, and it’s affirming to know that you’re like everybody else. It’s a really neat thing to see and you just get overcome."

Rodammer says sometimes families struggle with communication when there is a death. Parents may wonder how to talk to their child, and what’s appropriate to say. She says a lot of children that come to Ele’s Place don’t even know what happened.

"I think it is nice when the conversation can be had organically,” Rodammer says. "It’s a scary topic for a child and when it’s the first time a child will go through this, at so young an age, could it send them down the wrong path? I think we provide relief for a lot of families, to be able to have this organization and group they can talk to, and to see they’re not alone and don’t have to go through this by themselves."

Ashley Troszok is also a social worker at Ele’s. She says the underlying grief that links everyone at the facility can have a huge effect on development if its bottled up.

"In our society, we don't talk about death. It's kind of taboo,” she says. "That grief is internalized. It can come out in negative ways. It's very common for people to use negative coping skills such as being irritable, having outbursts of anger."

An unfortunate effect of such outbursts can result in some children being ordered by the court to attend Ele’s Place programming. Rodammer says it’s because the judges who handle cases like these see the benefit Ele’s Place offers.

"We have a lot of judges that work with us and say unresolved grief leads to an unbelievable amount of negative effects, whether it is hanging with the wrong kids, or drug use, or suicide,” Rodammer says. "It’s amazing that people don’t realize how grief can impact you in such a strong way. They have false diagnoses for ADHD and it’s not that, it’s actually grief. Grief is very powerful."

Families are invited to Ele’s as a unit and can all participate. Licensed clinicians lead the adult groups dealing with spouse or partner loss, child loss, and other areas. A group dealing specifically with suicide meets on Thursday nights.

Service Area
Ele’s Place was established in 1991 and named after Ele Stover, who died in 1989 at the age of 11 months, survived by four siblings "whose lives will be forever affected by her life, illness and death," elesplace.org says. Today there are four different Ele's Place locations in Michigan: Ann Arbor, Flint, Lansing, and Grand Rapids. The Grand Rapids location was established only three years ago, helping a few families in the area that had been driving to Lansing and back every week. Rodammer says Grand Rapids is a unique environment with other grief support facilities like Gilda’s Club, Starlight Ministries, and several Hospice organizations so close. While that does make fundraising a little more difficult, as some see the region as saturated with grief services, Rodammer says it’s not hard to show how crucial Ele’s Place is to the area and how it works with these other groups.

"We don’t want anyone on a wait list, so maybe we will refer someone to Gilda’s Club,” Rodammer says. "Or, if someone goes to Gilda’s Club as the result of a suicide, they may be referred to us, because Gilda’s doesn’t have a suicide group. We work together so that everybody in the community is being served in some way."

Ele’s Place has three operational branches. The programming within the walls of 2000 Michigan St. NE and the neighboring church is Ele’s Place. Ele’s Group is a middle school and high school program that is held schools. The third is the Crisis Response and Support Group, which is put together at a school if someone were to commit suicide or get into a car accident, Rodammer says.

Finding Help
One of the biggest challenge Ele’s Place faces is maintaining its volunteer pool. The organization will see around 500 children this year, split into groups of no more than 12, with two to three volunteer facilitators leading each group. Each of those volunteers must go through 23 hours of training and shadow another volunteer facilitator before leading a group. Volunteers working with school groups must log an entire semester with the group before they can lead.

"That makes it difficult,” Rodammer says. "We have to make sure our volunteer base is growing before we can grow our programming. The opportunity for growth is there, though, as long as we continue to build that volunteer network."

Ele’s Place is funded largely by a group of individual supporters, Rodammer says, and Ele’s Place receives no reimbursement from a health care system or state funding. Ele’s donors handle the bill of $500 a year for each child, while programming remains free.

"We rely heavily on our community’s generosity," Rodammer says. "We have a long list of supplies like coloring books, crayons, a sand tray, and simple things we use and go through very quickly."

While Ele's Place's work will never be done, Rodammer says the organization is gaining visibility in Michigan with its peer support approach, and that added awareness is gradually making the job of meeting funding goals easier.

For more information on Ele’s Place, visit http://www.elesplace.org/

Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com.

Photography by Steph Harding  

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