Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013 | 2 a.m.
A group of 15 children scribbled names and messages in marker onto orange balloons and stood in a circle on a recent evening outside Adam’s Place For Grief.
The balloons contained messages to deceased parents and siblings, and were decorated with hearts and sad faces. “Dad, I miss you and love you,” one elementary-school-age girl wrote. The messages dangled in the air, tethered to the children, who listened to Adam’s Place For Grief founder Kelly Thomas-Boyers share a message about letting out grief.
Then on Thomas-Boyers’ command, the children let go, watching the balloons drift into the gray sky.
The ceremony kicked off Adam’s Place For Grief’s first meeting of the year. For the past four years, the nonprofit organization has provided a free group therapy outlet for children and parents dealing with a death or traumatic life event.
It’s a place where children 3 to 18 years old can gather to escape the isolation of grief and talk to peers who understand them. At a time when teen suicide rates doubled in Nevada and the recession has thrown families into disarray with home foreclosures and layoffs, according to a 2012 UNLV study, such services are even more important.
“There’s a big misnomer in society in general that kids are resilient, they’re going to bounce back like you broke an arm,” Thomas-Boyers said. “Well not so much. … Kids are very concrete. They can understand loss. We know by the age 2 or 3 years old they understand the concept, but that doesn’t mean they’ve developed the skills to cope with that.”
After the opening ceremony, children and parents are separated into different rooms, each devoted to a specific age group. The office is designed to feel like a home to make the children feel comfortable. There’s a dining room with lasagna and cookies, a kitchen, and rooms specific for each age group.
The teenagers sit on couches and stare at the floor as the volunteers prod them to come out of their shells with conversations about summer. Next door, in a room filled with teddy bears and crafts, the middlers (7- to 12-year-olds) pass a talking stick around and a boy shares a story about how his father died from a heart attack.
Toddlers express their grief through playing with action figures in a sandbox. Meanwhile, a parent discusses the difficult start of the school year without her husband.
In the beginning, most of the children at Adam’s Place feel as if they’re alone, stranded on a desert island, volunteer John Dlouhy said. They struggle with the memories they have and the memories that will never be.
These sessions help them develop a camaraderie that lets the children know they’re not alone, Dlouhy said.
“There’s kind of that gravitational pull from child to child to say, ‘You’re OK, and I’m OK, so we’re going to get through this,’” Dlouhy said.
Thomas-Boyers started Adam’s Place For Grief four years ago. She lost her oldest son in a car crash in 2007 in Reno and felt disconnected from the world afterward. She knew her younger son would be going through the same issues. Yet she couldn’t find a resource in the Las Vegas Valley that helped children deal with grief.
So in 2009, she received funding from donors to start her own.
With the help of trained volunteers, Thomas-Boyers conducts sessions twice a month from September through June. This year, she is looking to expand to include two separate nights of sessions and is forming peer-support groups and suicide-prevention programs at Chaparral and Boulder City high schools.
Thomas-Boyers operates the organization with an army of volunteers and three paid interns. The foundation serves about 200 children, many of whom are referred to the program from schools, hospitals and trauma responders, over the course of the year. The majority of its funding comes from a grant from the Tony and Renee Marlon Charitable Foundation, as well as local business donations.
Her goal is to reach children before the grief can grow and fester. The longer the grief is repressed, Thomas-Boyers said, the more likely it starts to express itself in self-destructive ways like angry outbursts, disinterest and eventually drug abuse or suicide.
“Our overall mission is to be that consistent (place) that alumni can come back,” Thomas-Boyers said. “Our goal is to help folks develop the coping skills to manage that in positive and healthy choices and ways versus negative ways.”
Josephine Napolitano said the sessions were the highlight of her and her two daughters’ week.
She took her daughters Giuliana, 10, and Savi, 8, to the meetings two years ago, after her husband died in a car crash. His death sent Savi into angry fits causing her to hide and throw objects anytime her dad’s name was mentioned, while Giuliana became withdrawn, refusing to talk about her father. The program helped them cope with his death and changed their lives, Napolitano said.
“Savi is just a different person. She went from an angry girl to being happy,” Napolitano said. “It’s still hard for them, but this place has made them feel not different.”
The program has become a popular referral from Clark County School District counselors, said Rosemary Virtuoso, who is the district’s coordinator for the department of student threat and crisis.
Those referrals increased during the recession, when many parents had become unavailable emotionally or physically from their children under the economic strain. Nevada schools are also faced with rising rates of suicides and deaths.
Virtuoso said school counselors can help students readjust within the confines of school, but they still need help outside the classroom.
“Past the four walls of the school district, there are mental health issues that are more community-based,” Virtuoso said. “(Adam’s Place for Grief) helps the child get through loss and develop strategies to move on.”
The first session ends long after the orange balloons have disappeared into the gray sky. Children pair up with their parents and return back into a world where they may always feel a part of them is missing.
Unlike the balloons, though, the children's grief will never leave them. They can only hope to cope with it. Thomas-Boyers hopes that Adam’s Place For Grief makes that process just a little bit easier.