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Ele's Place: Healing Through Listening

A positive fixture in the Lansing community for over 20 years, Ele’s Place is now nationally recognized for their work in helping countless children heal and cope with grief. In January, the organization received a $25,000 grant from The New York Life Foundation to use toward their efforts in expanding the success of their unique program to new Michigan communities. Whether it’s listening to the needs of a community or those of a grieving child, Ele’s Place is clearly doing something very right.
Loss: it’s a dark room not one of us wants to find ourselves locked in. If groping blindly through the darkness of grief is overwhelming as an adult, imagine the challenge for those who can’t reach the light switch. For 21 years, Ele’s Place has put a flashlight in the hands of grieving Lansing area children and helped them to build a ladder to that metaphorical light switch.
Filling the Needs of a Community
Ele’s Place was founded through a partnership between Betsy Stover and a small group of Junior League members in 1991. The organization is named for Betsy’s daughter Ele, who died in 1989 at the age of 11 months. Ele left behind grieving siblings in need of support. No such center existed in the area, so a dedicated group of League members and others joined Stover to develop a plan to open such a place: Ele’s Place.
“Children want to talk about and understand these kinds of major events in their life,” says Sarah Rockstad, Director of Programming for Ele’s Place, “but they often feel that there is no one who truly understands.” Children who don’t get support may be at risk for depression, school failure, acting out, substance abuse, or even suicide.  “Everyone grieves differently, and even if a child doesn’t suffer major negative consequences, they may not work through their grief in the most healthy way possible,” adds Rockstad.
Weekly grief support groups are offered for children age 3 through 18 and their parents or guardians, in addition to groups for young adults age 18 through 25. Professional staff supervise trained volunteers that lead free of charge, ongoing groups. Another program, Together Learning to Cope, provides programming for families living with the life threatening illness of a family member. Ele’s Place reaches out into the community as well, partnering with local middle schools and community organizations like Highfields, the St. Vincent Children’s Home, and the Refugee Development Center.
Tools for Coping
Encouraging words, advice, and well-meaning “answers” are often given freely to grieving children and families, some helpful and some not so helpful. “Our approach is to listen,” Rockstad says, “and to let them know that they don’t need to find their way through grief all by themselves. We don’t offer advice or answers, but the experience Ele’s Place offers of truly being heard, understood, and respected allows people to find their own path forward.”
Children quickly begin to feel a sense of fellowship and develop bonds of trust, which allow them to share in their groups. Discussions and activities are meant to help participants talk about the experience of losing someone they love. They’ll share memories, express their feelings, and start to learn coping skills. Games like hot potato or Jenga, art, and music help facilitate those tough, but crucial peer conversations. The peer element, as Rockstad points out, is one of the strengths of the support group program. “Children quickly learn that they are not alone in their grief;” she says, “having the opportunity to share their experiences and feelings, allows them to move through the grief process with the support of others who care and understand.”
Strength in Motion
The Croff family experienced this strength first hand over the summer of 2011. Following the drowning death of their eight-year-old daughter Victoria, family and friends quickly recommended Ele’s Place. “The voice that actually called for it the soonest and had the most impact was that of our youngest child,” Victoria’s dad, Jeff, explains. “She talked about Ele’s Place and asked that we start attending.”
Ele’s Place gave the Croff girls a place “where they could comfortably address - or not if they weren’t feeling up to it – what was going on without their need to worry about protecting us as parents,” Croff says. “It was also a situation where they weren't the focus of everyone’s concern. All the kids there had gone through loss and were trying to cope with it.”
An important element of the program for the Croffs is that the culture of Ele’s Place doesn’t push children to participate or evaluate. Instead, Croff says, “it recognizes that children are capable of engaging on their time frame and it gives them a ready environment that they feel comfortable in when that time arises.”
Successes and milestones come in all shapes and sizes for Ele’s Place kids. Often, children are so overcome with grief they’re unable to say the name of the person who died, or they avoid any conversation about the death or their loved one. Just as often, however, those same children are later able to easily share, help support, and offer understanding to newcomers. Families report positive behavioral changes and improved school performance.
Rockstad tells the story of one young man in the program that had only attended briefly after a violent, traumatic death in his family. “He wanted us to know,” she says, “that even though we might have thought we hadn’t reached him, because he only attended a few times, he felt the time he spent in a group here was invaluable. He learned that he was not alone, that others care, and that what happened was not his fault.”
Expanding Impact
The reach of Ele’s Place programming is far and wide, including making a profound impact on the organization’s staff. “It’s a privilege to work for Ele’s Place,” President and CEO Laurie Strauss Baumer says,” every day I get up and look forward to coming into work. I realize what a blessing that is.” Strauss Baumer, who oversees both the Lansing and Ann Arbor locations, is passionate about supporting grieving children and the difference Ele’s Place makes in their lives.

She explains she is most proud of how the organization has all worked together to move Ele’s Place vision forward: ‘Every grieving child in Michigan will have access to compassionate support.‘ “Currently we are working on expanding the reach of our school-based program in the Ann Arbor area and in rural communities surrounding Lansing,” Strauss Baumer reports. “We are also responding to two of our families from West Michigan who have asked for our help in starting an Ele’s Place in their community. Grieving children everywhere need and deserve support!”

Veronica Gracia-Wing is a frequent contributor to Capital Gains.

Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.


Ele's place activities and facility

Photos – Ele's Place & © Dave Trumpie
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