The Grief Outreach Initiative: University Students Help
Grieving Children in the Community
By TRICIA MCCLAM, Ph.D. and MARY ALICE VARGA, M.Ed.
Dr. Tricia McClam is Associate Department Head for the Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences at the University of Tennessee. She is also a professor in Counselor Education and the program coordinator for the Grief Outreach Initiative. Mary Alice Varga is a third-year doctoral student in Applied Educational Psychology at the University of Tennessee. She is also a graduate assistant for the Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling and the Grief Outreach Initiative.
A phone call to the Grief Outreach Initiative at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, typically begins with something like the following:
• I am a school counselor emailing on behalf of a student’s parents. She is looking for grief counseling for her children. Are you taking new clients?
• I have a female student who has moved here from another state, leaving her dad there as part of a divorce. She really needs to have someone help her with this sense of loss. Is someone available for her?
• The teachers here have given me a list of 16 students they feel could use additional one-on-one grief support. Please let me know if you have any students who would be able to meet with them.
My name is Tricia McClam and I have coordinated the Grief Outreach Initiative since its inception in 2008. It is a service offered by the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences at the University of Tennessee that pairs university students with children and youth in the community who have experienced some type of loss—a death, a divorce, parental incarceration, a move, or a new school. Although a targeted area for the Initiative are schools in the Empowerment Zone, a 16 square mile area in East Knoxville designated as a high poverty area, referrals come from school counselors, principals, parents, grandparents, mental health and children’s services case managers, and social workers from across Knox County and surrounding counties. To date, the Initiative has served over 160 children, youth, and families.
The first referral came prior to the official beginning of the Initiative. A grandfather called about his three granddaughters, all six years of age and younger, who were now in his custody as a result of sexual abuse. The six year old was already labeled a sexual predator. Feeling overwhelmed and desperate, he wanted help. Clearly, the needs he described were complex and beyond what we could provide so this initial referral alerted me to several concerns. First, I needed to be fully prepared to screen referrals so that we didn’t accept referrals beyond our expertise, as this one was. Second, I needed to have community resources at hand to make referrals myself. Third, although I was aware of the statistics regarding grandparents raising grand kids, here was the reality. And finally, on a personal level, I found myself wondering if this was really happening in the community where I lived.
The Inspiration for the Initiative
The inspiration for the Grief Outreach Initiative was a situation encountered by Dr. Bob Rider, Dean of the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences. Dean Rider, who reads to children at a local elementary school each Wednesday morning, met a first-grader named Aliyah, who was grieving over the death of her mother. While each child touches his heart in different ways, he said, “Aliyah is a child I will never forget.” When Dean Rider asked the first-grader to read aloud to him a book about Mother’s Day, she told him that her mother had died on Valentine’s Day. She still wanted to read the book, but Dean Rider could not forget the memory and how the child’s grief affected her—she was held back in school because she could not adjust socially and academically. “Right then and there, sitting outside Mrs. McCoy’s room at the school on a carpeted staircase, I was lost for words,” said Rider. “I was thinking, ‘We have wonderful counseling programs at the university and other support services’” Rider said. “There are so many needs that these kids have. I wanted to know how we could help.” And so the Grief Outreach Initiative began.
University Students as Grief Mentors
Graduate students in the College who are training to become school psychologists, mental health counselors, school counselors, nutritionists, and college student personnel administrators enroll in a semester-long course to receive training to work with grieving children. In addition to learning about the grief and loss experienced by children, student mentors develop a variety of strategies to engage children of various ages in establishing a relationship with them. Student mentors also participate in professional seminars and conferences. Once training is complete, their mission is to provide support, acceptance, and a safe place for the expression of thoughts and feelings about grief and loss. They are then paired with referrals. They meet children at schools, churches, and other locations throughout the community.
Together, mentors and children age six to16 meet weekly one-on-one or in small groups to listen, draw, talk, play, tell stories, read books, make memory books, and record memories to help children cope with a loss. Frequently, mentors just improvise to meet the needs of the moment. In addition, some unintended results of the project are identifying the needs of a child who isn’t getting enough food at home, a seven-year-old in so much pain he wants “to stab himself in the heart,” two brothers who found their mother dead one morning, and two siblings and a cousin who saw a family member murdered. Often these children and others like them slip through the cracks.
Making a Difference
One of the greatest challenges for organizations like the Initiative is securing funding in times of economic downturns. A question from funding administrators that I am asked perhaps more than any other relates to the data we have; e.g., how many children have received services? And how are you measuring your effectiveness? Progress in this type of work is often difficult to measure. Sometimes feedback from teachers, counselors, and parents tell us about improved dispositions, schoolwork, or peer relations, but perhaps the most important feedback is what mentors experience with their children. It might be as simple as a smile or a compliment: “She told me I look like an 8th grader! A huge compliment coming from a 7th grader!”
These are two of many examples that let us know we are making a difference in the lives of children in our community. I also receive unsolicited “thank you” notes from student mentors that tell me we are making a difference in their lives as well.
I want to thank you for the opportunity to be part of the GOI. It’s been
amazing and I’ve learned so much.
Thank you so much for allowing me to add this course. Little did I know
it would change my life the way it did. It completely solidified my career
decision to counsel children.
As gratifying and meaningful as this feedback is, it is not the data funding sources want. The fact remains that we do need support so we are now compiling our data from 2008 to the present so that we can respond to the questions that are important to funding sources. And we’ll continue to appreciate these nontraditional signs that we are indeed making a difference to children and student mentors-- and me.
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