When her 38-year-old son died after a seizure four years ago, Beverly Betters sought grief counseling through her church.
"It helped me so much, and it's still helping me," the Ednor Gardens resident said. "I never would have gotten through it without that help."
The experience motivated Betters to train as a volunteer to help others in Baltimore - particularly children - cope with loss.
"This is something that is really needed," Betters said.
Betters was among 25 volunteers who completed a 26-hour training program yesterday to offer grief counseling through the St. Frances Academy Community Center on Chase Street. Eventually, the program's founder, Annette March-Grier, plans to open Roberta's House, a grief and loss center, named for her late mother.
March-Grier, a funeral director who is training the volunteers, plans for the center eventually to be housed in a building at North and Cecil avenues, the original location of the March Funeral Home.
During her years of conducting grief counseling at churches and in schools, March-Grier said she has seen troubling signs of grieving youth: Children who paste obituaries in their school binders; teens who wear T-shirts printed with images of dead siblings or friends; kids who pin buttons with those same painful images on their jackets.
"They are all grieving, and not enough people are paying attention," she said. "Schools and churches are inundated. We have to listen to these kids and get them to explore their losses."
March-Grier, a registered nurse, started a bereavement program at her parents' funeral business 25 years ago. In the past decade, she said, she has seen a rise in the number of children who need grief assistance.
"Children are often overlooked," she said. "People think they'll adjust quicker and that schools will help them. But I have seen a lot of anger, rage, blame and other emotions that we have to deal with. The city especially needs this resource."
She said she has based her program on one used by a Pennsylvania insurance company that offers free services to as many as 1,500 families a year.
Word of the program is being spread through fliers in churches, community centers and workplaces. The volunteers are scheduling appointments to offer counseling starting next week at the St. Frances center.
Shirley Owens of Nottingham said she is convinced of the need for the program and of her own ability as a volunteer. In her 30 years as a probation officer in the state Department of Juvenile Services, she has seen how one family tragedy spawns others.
"This grief program will help teens, especially, work through problems that grief has caused them," said Owens, who learned of the training from a flier at her workplace. "These kids don't know how to channel their anger, and maybe we can help with that."
A child's grief over the loss of a parent is complicated by the loss of security and sometimes the loss of identity. It often leads to placement in the foster care system and separation from siblings.
"If kids don't find the words to express their grief and pain, they will often act out," March-Grier said.
Roberta's House will provide creative activities, such as arts, crafts and music, to help children work through their anxieties. Volunteers will engage in creative play and help children build memory treasures - often something as simple as putting together a box of items once shared with a loved one.
"If this is your call, you can help," said the Rev. Delores Jordan, a volunteer and a bereavement minister with Southern Baptist Church on Chester Street. "Most just want someone to listen to them talk about their grief."
Most volunteers have experienced a recent loss that gives them a deeper empathy with the children, said Lisa Hill of Dundalk. She had no idea how to ease her own pain or console her daughter, whose baby died soon after birth.
"If you have been through it, you are the best person to help these kids," she said. "I used to say, 'Don't tell me you know how I feel if you ain't been there.' "
March-Grier envisions Roberta's House as a haven where it will be OK to cry and even rail against life. "We are not here to fix what has happened in their lives but to be present, to listen and to journey with them," she said. "We all have the God seed within us that can heal us."
Roberta's House is scheduling appointments for families. Children ages 5 to 17 years must be accompanied by an adult. Information: 410-435-0500 or e-mail email@example.com.