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HOPE Project to reach children in grief with grant to expand services, training

March 25, 2019
Adam Carter
Adam Carter

A new grant to the Department of Counseling, Adult and Higher Education soon will produce as many as 45 new counselors with special and unique preparation in working with children who are grieving.

The $100,000 from the New York Life Foundation will meet a critical need in the DeKalb region by funding the HOPE (Hold On, Pain Ends) Project, a free, school-based grief support groups and clinical grief counseling.

NIU faculty members Adam Carter and Dana Isawi expect that HOPE will reach more than 350 children during the two years of the grant. That number will multiply exponentially as counseling students complete their master’s degrees and begin practicing – and with project coordinator Carter’s goal that the program becomes self-sustaining.

HOPE Project recognizes that counselors cannot “take what we’re doing with adults and just modify it,” says Carter, who emphasizes that the grant specifically focuses on losses of death rather than divorce, military deployment or incarceration.

Counselors will follow the evidence-informed Rainbows for All Children system.

“We need to create interventions that are unique to children,” he says. “Sometimes, their grief and bereavement process is controlled by adult members of their families. Oftentimes, children will shut down because they don’t want to make their guardians cry. They need to know it’s OK to show tears.”

Many young children are unable to realistically process the concept of death, he adds.

“It’s where they are developmentally. They’re very concrete thinkers,” Carter says. “When we use euphemisms for death, it confuses children. When we say, ‘They’ve gone to a happier place,’ children can think they want to go a happier place, too. It can cause suicidal thoughts because they want to be with that person.”

Adolescents, meanwhile, “are pulling away and looking for support among their peers, but their peers often don’t know what to say, and then they shut down because they don’t want to make their peers sad.”

Courses that support the success of the grant are CAHC 551 (Supervised Practice in Group Counseling) and CAHC 590 (Play Therapy).

“We have found that internship students in counseling don’t perceive their training as effective in helping them feel comfortable working with grieving children, which is why we started HOPE,” Carter says. “This program does give our students a very unique experience because these are courses that are not commonly taught.”

Although services for all ages traditionally have been delivered at the Community Counseling Training Center, located on the fourth floor of Graham Hall, families with grieving children can find easy access to the HOPE Project at the NIU Health, Wellness and Literacy Center on Sycamore Road.

Jerry L. Johns Literacy Clinic administrators have offered a room inside their facility for the counseling, Carter says.

“That should help to alleviate the burdens on family members in having to pick up their children after school and get them somewhere on campus,” he says. “That room is also already set up for children.”

Dana Isawi
Dana Isawi

For Carter, working with grieving children is a life’s calling.

While completing his master’s degree, he hoped to practice at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. He eventually began serving with a hospice agency, counseling children who had recently experienced loss or were in the process of dying.

“A lot of counselors don’t go there because they don’t know what to say,” he says, “or they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. It’s hard.”

Joining NIU in the project are Northwest Medicine Hospice, Adventure Works, DeKalb Community Unit School District 428 and Sycamore Community Unit School District 427.