Grief center for children supports healing after loss
By Ayleen Gontz | Photography by Casey Martin
The brick building at the corner of Baltimore and West Walnut streets in Hanover, Pa., looks quite ordinary from the outside, but inside, a rather extraordinary transformation has taken place. Everything—from its brightly decorated rooms and the state-of-the-art recording studio to the toys lining the shelves and the yellow lab in therapy dog training—is geared toward helping children cope with the grief they experience after the loss of a loved one.
Olivia’s House, named in part for Olivia Walton, the problem-solving and compassionate matriarch of the 1970s television show, “The Waltons,” was Pennsylvania’s first independent, not-for-profit grief and loss center for children. Its services, including referrals, an 8-week counseling program called Hearts Can Heal, and 2-year social program for alumni, are offered at no cost to Adams and York County families.
For Leslie Delp, bereavement specialist and founder of Olivia’s House, the opportunity to turn Hanover’s former Bell Insurance building into a grief and loss center for children was an extension of a project that started in 1996. At that time, Delp had begun to develop Hearts Can Heal as part of her private practice. The artwork that the children were creating during their sessions and the overwhelming need for a child-centric grief center inspired Delp to establish Olivia’s House at 830 S. George St. in York, Pa. In 2007, Olivia’s House expanded into the home next door.
As Olivia’s House grew and began to draw more and more people from outside of York, Delp decided in 2013 to extend the center’s services to the Hanover area. Today, Delp says the York and Hanover locations have graduated more than 1,400 children from the Hearts Can Heal program and provided referrals and general services to many more.
“We help them move from victim to survivor,” Delp says. “That takes time and patience. It’s not an overnight transformation.”
Delp says the center’s care for grieving children is three-tiered. It begins when a family member calls to seek a referral for a death or an anticipated death in the family. The staff at Olivia’s House does an intake session with the family to learn more about the circumstances and then makes a referral to a specialist.
“That first step is like triage,” Delp says. “A child needs specific, individual, immediate attention.”
Next, when the specialist believes the child is ready, the family returns to Olivia’s House to participate in the Hearts Can Heal program. For eight weeks, a family member and the child commit to 16 hours of counseling in a group setting led by a bereavement counselor and trained volunteers. Parents meet downstairs while the children separate into various age-appropriate rooms.
In the sand and water room, the youngest children use any of hundreds of figures—policemen, dragons, penguins, princesses, and pirates—to share their thoughts and feelings. Preschoolers and elementary children head to a room where a painting of animal parents and their babies is used by the session leader to stimulate conversations. Middleschoolers have their sessions in an equine-themed room where a mural showing young horses running free or trapped behind fences can bring out similar feelings of inclusion or exclusion.
Highschoolers find their way to a restaurant-themed room where the Up All Night Diner encourages them to open up about feelings they experience any time of the day or night. Older children can also spend time in The Confessional, a private recording studio where they can remotely turn on a video camera to record feelings and stories in a safe space.
“This separation allows us to teach parents how to parent a traumatized child,” Delp says. “But it also creates a connection between parent and child because we include identical components—like a game or a themed discussion—to give them a similar experience to discuss on the way home.”
For Lynn Wheatley, an Olivia House alumna from Littlestown, Pa., who now volunteers at the Hanover location, those car rides home were the path to a new beginning. She called Olivia’s House 14 years ago when she and her husband, Dane Stambaugh, learned that he was dying from kidney cancer. Hannah was 7 years old at the time.
“We learned, not easily, that honesty was the best way to deal with death and grief,” Wheatley says. “[Delp] gave us the tools to start those conversations.”
Hannah, now 21, is a senior in the nursing program at Immaculate College in Malvern, Pa.
The Hearts Can Heal program ends with a 2-year slate of planned alumni events where parents and children can join other graduates of the program for fun activities like bowling, baseball games, movies, and holiday shopping.
“Grieving is a natural process,” Delp says. “The body knows what to do. We just need to listen.”
Contact Olivia’s House
Is your family dealing with the loss of a loved one? Are you interested in volunteering to help children cope with loss?
830 S. George St., York, Pa.
101 Baltimore St., Hanover, Pa.