Where can grieving children and families find hope during COVID-19? Erin's House offers help

Hey, friends! I’m Debbie Meyer, executive director at Erin’s House for Grieving Children–a local nonprofit organization that provides support services to children, teens, and their families who have experienced a death.

I have lived in Northeast Indiana since birth, and I feel privileged to say I have served in this role for 12 years. I couldn’t do it without the incredible Erin’s House team consisting of eight full-time and six part-time staff members. Debbie Meyer

For more than 27 years, Erin’s House has been a special place for grieving children and teens in the Fort Wayne community. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were serving more than 850 individuals per month at our facility who traveled from 12 counties in Northeast Indiana and three counties in Northwest Ohio. And the power of our programs has been making a huge difference in people's lives.

One story that comes to mind is a note I received from a mom a couple of years ago.

I remember watching this mom and her son walk into Erin’s House for their orientation. The boy clearly did not want anything to do with this place. His mom could barely get him through the door, and he had a major attitude during their orientation. His school had referred them to Erin’s House since his father had died two months prior. His first program was that same night following orientation, and the very next day, I received the note.

“I’m not sure what happened in group last night, but all the way home my son talked about his dad," the mother wrote. "For the last two months, he wouldn’t even say the word ‘dad.'’ He shared with me how much he missed him and how it was so hard at school because no one understood what he was going through. Your organization is truly a blessing to our family and our community. Thank you!”

Kind words like these remind me why we need Erin’s House in Fort Wayne, and during the pandemic, we are finding ways to adapt and provide for families in a time of need because grief doesn't stop when a pandemic starts.

Erin's House for Grieving Children is located at 5670 YMCA Park Dr. West in Fort Wayne.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, our phones have not stopped ringing. Funerals have been altered due to the coronavirus, limiting gatherings where the grieving family would typically have a support system of loved ones.

Even under normal circumstances, grief can be lonely and feel like no one understands. These feelings are often exacerbated by social distancing.

On a more logistical side of things, one of our largest fundraisers for the year has been put on hold.

Last year, our organization served more than 1,600 individuals with an annual budget of $800,000. To help cover this cost, we host fundraisers throughout the year with our two largest being "Common Bond" in the spring and "Wine for the Spirit" in the fall.

In March 2020, we were all set for this year’s "Common Bond" to welcome Roberto Clemente Jr., son of the baseball legend, to Fort Wayne on May 14th. That day has now come and passed with no event happening. But we are hopeful that we will still welcome Clemente Jr. to Fort Wayne in the near future.

After all, Erin’s House is a place of hope.

The child-friendly program space at Erin's House has been empty for two months now.

On March 13th, we decided it was best for our kids, families, volunteers, and staff to suspend our on-site grief support groups and close our facility to keep everyone safe. Since then, our staff has been working diligently from home to continue supporting our kids and families virtually.

For one, we implemented virtual support groups through Zoom, where our staff can continue to interact with the youth who are accustomed to meeting with them.

We've also found new, creative ways to get our volunteers involved. At Erin's House, volunteers are the heart of our service. Something most people might not realize about us is that all of our programs and services are offered to families at absolutely no fee to them. (Many families are already struggling with funeral and medical costs. The last thing we want a family to worry about is how they will afford to get their child the support they need.)

As such, we work with more than 200 volunteer facilitators and house parents who ensure that no child ever grieves alone. During COVID-19, these volunteers are making videos and sending letters to the kids in their groups.

One volunteer even hand-made cloth masks to mail their kids.

Name tags at Erin's House show how many children they serve across Northeast Indiana and Ohio.

We've also taken to social media as a nonprofit organization creating activity videos for families to do at home, offering grief talking sheets inspired by Disney movies to encourage healthy family discussion, and providing other tip sheets to support those grieving while we are apart. (Those resources can be found here.)

To ensure new families are able to join our program, we made a virtual orientation video to give them a feel for Erin’s House.
As a part of our usual on-site programming, eating pizza around a table together is a key part of our meetings because when a family member dies, dinner as a family is one of the first things to stop.

During COVID-19, we wanted to make sure our families are still having dinner together during their time at home, so we talked with Pizza Hut about getting pizza vouchers for each family we serve. We set up a Facebook fundraiser to make our first ever Stay-At-Home Erin’s House Family Night a reality. Within days, our amazing community rallied together to give 250 families a large pizza and a Healing Heart activity.

Since Erin’s House does not receive any government funding or insurance reimbursement, we truly rely on our caring community in Northeast Indiana to support our organization. It’s because of this extraordinary community rising up to keep us going that Erin’s House will continue to be here for grieving children and families during this pandemic and beyond.

As COVID-19 progresses, we are witnessing kids who are asking lots of questions and feeling more anxious and lonely.

Our goal is to stay connected with them so that they feel loved and supported by their community in this time that is difficult for everyone.

Learn more

You can view Erin’s House updates and resources regarding COVID-19 on their website or by following them on social media:

Website: ErinsHouse.org/covid-19
Facebook: @ErinsHouseForGrievingChildren
Instagram: @ErinsHouse4GrievingChildren
Twitter: @ErinsHouse

This blog is part of an ongoing, weekly series in Input Fort Wayne, following local small business owners and nonprofit leaders as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Read Erin's House's blog next week by subscribing to our free weekly email newsletter.
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