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Open Arms

Open Arms offers grief support in a group setting to children ages 3-17 who have suffered the loss of a family member due to accident, illness, suicide or homicide. Working with schools, churches and other community organizations, the program also aims to educate the public on the long-term impact of grief and trauma.
Michigan Nightlight: Tell us briefly about your program in terms of it purpose and who it serves. 
St. John Providence Community Health Director Karen Gray Sheffield: We provide support and grief counseling for children; we also educate about the long-term impacts of grief and intervention. A key component is community outreach. We work with the police and fire departments, schools, churches and other organizations to identify people who may be in need of our services. There are many agencies out there, but not many that are grief-specific.
What really differentiates this program?
I would say what differentiates us is our focus on children. There are a lot of assumptions and misconceptions about the way kids handle grieving -- that they should be shielded from it and not talk about it. We deal with children as young as three or four years old, and help them to articulate their experience through play therapy, drawing, arts & crafts, etc. Although they might not have the vocabulary to talk about what they’re experiencing, they’re able to identify their feelings through other
There are a lot of assumptions and misconceptions about the way kids handle grieving -- that they should be shielded from it and not talk about it.
What are the keys to success for your program?
The group setting is crucial; we find that when children are able to find peer support, this is instrumental to healing. Individual therapy can also be helpful, but when they can see others who have gone through similar losses, they understand that they’re not alone. It’s key for them to hear someone say, “This is what I experienced, and this is how I got through it.” Educating the public is also important; since grief often doesn’t come with a mental health diagnosis, some parents are inclined to think, “My kid’s not crazy,” and reject the idea of counseling.
What existing challenges remain with this program and how do you plan to overcome them?
Our society, our schools and workplaces, reinforce the notion that grief and mourning should be brief. Offices typically give three days off, and then you’re supposed to just move on and “get on with life” without the need for additional support. Even in faith-based communities, the idea is sometimes promoted that your faith should be enough to get you through a difficult time. Another challenge is that inner city kids are exposed to a staggering amount of violence. The resulting trauma is often unrecognized or labeled as something else, like ADHD. The best way to overcome these challenges is to persist with education efforts in our schools and communities.
What lessons have you learned in the past year, and how are you adapting?
We’re constantly making small changes to our services based on our experience. For example, although group support is a
Our society, our schools and workplaces, reinforce the notion that grief and mourning should be brief.
successful format, we’ve broken up larger groups and made them a bit smaller. We’ve learned that we need to be innovative in regards to reaching children and families. If they’re not looking for us, they don’t know we’re there, so we do outreach not only in schools, but with police and fire departments, churches, and other organizations. We also need to operate in ways that facilitate parents getting help for their kids without having to take off work. So we have early evening meetings, and provide a light meal and transportation if needed, to make it as easy as possible to participate.
What are people in your program most inspired by? 
The average person would see grief work as the last thing you’d want to do, but it is so fulfilling to see young children who start out so hopeless, and be able to offer them a process toward seeing that there is hope for the future. Children who experience a traumatic loss are statistically at a much greater risk for academic failure, teen pregnancy, drug use, violent behavior, and a host of other problems. Being able to help them take a negative experience and turn it into something positive empowers them, in turn, to help others. I’m also personally inspired by our program’s volunteers, who have so much heart and compassion for people.

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  • St. John Providence Community Health
    Open Arms provides support and counseling to children and adults experiencing grief and trauma. Serving Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties, the program educates the community about grief and trauma and its long-term impact and provides supportive ...


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