Unexpected Birthday Gift
I love watching my son play hockey. It trumps watching Patrick Kane stickhandle his way through a defense. Every game is punctuated by my son trudging out of the locker room, weighed down by bulky gear and, maybe, even a heartbreaking loss. In that moment, it hits me: I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
So, when I was invited to be a Big Buddy (an adult mentor) at a Comfort Zone Camp event last December 7, I hesitated. Held at a Downers Grove grade school, it marked the first time CZC ever hosted a one-day program, not an overnight camp, for grieving children. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go. I hesitated because the words “HOCKEY GAME” were written on my calendar that same Saturday.
Still, something tugged at me. Little did I know, that pull would later have a name, a face and a story.
Brian, 12, was my Little Buddy. He had lost his mother in May of 2013. After that, his aunt became his legal guardian. I called Brian a few days before the event. He talked a bit. Mostly, though, he listened. And because of that, I told him about my mom. I told him about the Comfort Zone camp and what it was all about.
December seventh arrived. We sat in a Healing Circle, about eight kids, their Big Buddys and a counselor, when the group leader said, “Does anyone want to share their story with the group?”
The tug that I mentioned? There it was again. Brian looked at me and nodded slowly, not blinking once. His stare bore through me and clearly said: You go first, I’ll go second. After a deep breath, I waded through a river of tears and words and memories. I had never had a Little Buddy ask this of me. Then, he spoke. He talked about his mother and her recent death. He talked about his unique family. Suddenly, he wasn’t a shy little boy anymore but, rather, a grief-stricken person, relieved at finally sharing his story.
And, then, a chance remark. Upon pickup, I happened to mention to his aunt that my birthday was Monday. Much to my surprise, she texted me on that day and asked if Brian could call and talk to me. Here’s what he said: “This past weekend helped me a lot. And I wanted to call to wish you a happy birthday.”
We talked a little more, and then I pressed END on my phone, holding it for a long time in absolute awe. I was 38 years old that day, and I had gotten one of the greatest gifts a person could give me. Brian’s call made me think about how Comfort Zone Camp makes people feel. Like they are in a safe place, like a family. A family that encourages one another to overcome adversity. A family that cares. A family that calls one another to wish them a happy birthday.
Brian’s call also made me think about the important role of men as volunteers. Honestly, we have a hard time recruiting male volunteers. As his Big Buddy, he and I had something in common right off the bat, and I believe that this helped him feel comfortable enough to nudge me forward and, most importantly, follow my example to speak in a group.
All this brings me to our upcoming Cheers for Change Fundraising Event on March 8. Members of two families who have enrolled their children in our camps will share their stories. It will be like one big healing circle for 500 people! I personally invite you to find out what it’s all about.
Feel the tug?
Founder and Executive Director
Sheilah A. Doyle Foundation
P: (708) 546-4932
Change of Heart
Today, I have a story about all of us. It’s a story centered around the longing for understanding found deep within our hearts.
Picture this. A melee of kids tangled with welcoming volunteers, dusty cars, and the sharp slap of high fives exchanged between friends who first met the previous September. Sound bites rise like bubbles in the air. Hey, girlfriend, I missed you, how are you? Don’t be afraid, this will be good for you, I promise. Mom, I’ll be fine, come meet my Big Buddy from last year. Blue Nike duffel bags and bright pink backpacks are tossed like salad fixings along sidewalks lined with grass as ten-year-old girls skip ahead of their moms and sons say goodbye to their grandmothers and teenagers catch up in conversation.
It’s Friday, around 4:00 p.m., the first day of the 2013 Sheilah A. Doyle Foundation weekend at Camp Manitoqua in Frankfort, Illinois.
I’m walking along, breathing in the scene, drawing strength from my mom who I know is always near me. The newness of the camp is gone for me now. Already, the weekend feels mature. Like a relationship that moves to another, more meaningful, level. We are in year three. Little did I know an epiphany bigger than I could ever have imagined was about to unfold.
The man was short, wearing glasses, his hands stuffed in his pockets. He looked like a hard worker who cared about his family. I recognized the boy walking beside him. Paul came the previous year. His two siblings, who by now had aged out, had been attending since we founded the S.A.D. Foundation. I asked the man, “So, how do you know Paul?”
“I’m his father,” he said in a quiet, steely voice. He was guarded at first, a bit nervous, his brow creased as his searching eyes surveyed the comings and goings of campers checking in.
You see, his college-bound, teenage son was shot on his grandmother’s porch. The bright, promising young man then stumbled to the back of that house in the North Lawndale area and took his last breath while in his uncle’s arms.
Now, here we were. Three years of this man’s children talking about their experiences brought him to camp. “I wanted to check it out,” he said. For me, his curiosity was significant. I shared my story. Suddenly, he was no longer a world apart from me, but right there with me. I could see a door to his feelings had opened and a very thin, slant of light fell into a very dark room. Then he told me his story, from the parent perspective.
So, here’s something you hear all the time: a lot of violence occurs because fathers are not part of their children’s lives. I am a father and so was this man. We love our children. We are grown men, but we still wake up in the middle of the night and pine for what could have been. Still, we cry for the people we lost and how we lost them.
And, now, the epiphany: Paul’s father asked me if there was a camp for parents.
We always thought a parent program would be a good idea, but, in that moment, I knew it beyond all doubt. And a young adult program, too. There’s a lot of clinical research I could share, like the brain is not fully developed until age 25, but I’m not a doctor. I am a son who lost his mother to homicide when he was 17 years old. Trust me when I say young adults need guidance to handle grief too.
After talking a bit, I asked Paul’s father to stay for Friday night’s parent dinner with the kids and invited him back on Sunday for the closing memorial service. He punctuated our conversation with, “I know we’re in the right place.” I will never forget those words.
This past September was the first time our camp had a waiting list. That’s one of those double-edged swords: It tells me people need our services, but also that violence continues in the everyday lives of children. The camp was special in that campers who were three-year veterans talked to us about their futures. They told us how they were doing in school. They were excited about the weekend, but even more importantly, they were excited about the possibilities in their lives. We had never heard this before, but it is exactly the reason we exist: to establish lifelong relationships with these kids and their families so they can lead happy, satisfying lives.
Together, we own this story because each of us has the ability to flood the darkness with light. On that September day, I witnessed the transformation of a man’s heart. That’s what I hope our foundation will continue doing … for kids, parents, young adults, volunteers, community members, everyone affected by homicide. Think of the brilliance there could be.
And it all starts with a little understanding.
Founder and Executive Director
Sheilah A. Doyle Foundation
P: (708) 546-4932
Roseland Community Hospital Hosts S.A.D.’s First Ever “Chicago Needs You” Orientation
On August 8 of this year, S.A.D. Founder and Executive Director Kevin Doyle addressed an audience of medical professionals and administration staff at Roseland Community Hospital. The far south side Chicago medical facility, led by newly named hospital Vice-President and Executive Director Timothy Egan, wanted its staff to learn more about families affected by homicide so it could further serve residents.
The orientation, part of the foundation’s 2014 Chicago Needs You outreach effort, created awareness about the unique challenges experienced by children ages 7 to 17 who lose a parent, caregiver or sibling to homicide. In addition to the orientation, Roseland Community Hospital now educates families who may be candidates for S.A.D.’s free grief counseling camp held each September at Camp Manitoqua in Frankfort, Illinois. A poster, highlighting S.A.D.’s mission, will be displayed in the hospital’s emergency room.
Thank you, Mr. Egan and everyone at Roseland Community Hospital, for spreading the word about the Sheilah A. Doyle Foundation. Chicago needs you!
Ron Holt Joins S.A.D. Foundation
As Board Member
Ronald Holt is a 20-plus year veteran with the Chicago Police Department and Commander/Deputy-Director of the CAPS Implementation Division (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy). Currently Ronald is Commander of the Special Activities Unit and Citywide Coordinator of the Crime Victim Assistance Program at the Chicago Police Department.
On May 10, 2007, Ronald’s 16-year-old son Blair became an innocent victim to a senseless act of gun violence while riding a CTA bus from school. After the horrible tragedy Ronald was inspired to honor his son and make the argument to youth about the dangers of gangs, guns, drugs and the culture of violence verses the positive impact of education, family values and spiritual enrichment.
In 2009 Ronald was selected as one of six recipients by Chicago magazine as “Chicagoans of The Year Making A Difference in 2009” and beginning in 2010 Ronald was selected by the Mayor’s Office of Chicago to be a part of the Chicago Team to craft a city plan to reduce and end youth violence.
Ronald received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Eastern Illinois University. He is currently a student-at-large studying towards a Master’s Degree in Criminal Social Justice.
Welcome, Ronald, from all of us at the Sheilah A. Doyle Foundation.
Meet Sara Shotsberger
- S.A.D. Foundation Camp Big Buddy Volunteer, 2011 and 2012
- Social Worker with LEEDA Services, focusing on Chicago’s Howard community
- Chicago native
- Southern Illinois University undergraduate, Rehabilitation Services
- Loyola University Chicago, Masters in Social Work
Sara Shotsberger is a doer. A social worker by trade, she helps people tackle difficult issues every day: financial struggle, lack of education, dysfunctional families and violence. Sara attended a volunteer training session hosted by the Sheilah A. Doyle Foundation because she thought it would strengthen her expertise in bereavement, possibly even giving her new light on loss that she herself has experienced.
What she got was much, much more.
“The camp selection process matches an adult volunteer with a buddy who shares similar experiences, personality and otherwise,” said Sara. “Receiving the confirmation email of my ‘Buddy-ness’ confirmed for me what I already knew: that I was supposed to be at this camp because I knew my energy matched the energy I got from Comfort Zone Camp training and, more personally, the Doyle family. Throughout the months leading up to camp, the entire Doyle family and their supporters enriched my life and have inspired me to enrich others.”
Since volunteering for her first camp in September of 2011, Sara has since become more involved with the Sheilah A Doyle. Sara is a liaison to community partnership programs such as the Mothers of Murdered Sons Mother’s Day Bruncheon and helps with Cheers for Change, the annual fundraiser event for the S.A.D Foundation.
Sara says, “I talk to community leaders across Chicago about what we can actually do for these children. Through our outreach with community members who share similar messages, we know that there is a debilitating and developmental effect on children who experience violence around them and the loss of their parent or sibling to homicide. It has been more than eye opening.”
So, what is it like to experience camp as a volunteer? She describes the before and after by saying, “We all walk in vulnerable and raw. We leave camp knowing something special just occurred and it is only the beginning of our journey. Even the 16-year-old high school junior counselor and my wise-beyond-her-years, ten-year-old Little Buddy brought a lifetime of knowledge with them and laid it out for us in a way only a child could bring to tragedy.” A homicide-related camp, she says, offers common ground and deeply rooted expectations that everyone will be accepted, regardless of where they are in their journey. “At camp, we automatically saw everyone as an equal - children and adults alike.”
Sarah describes camp as a group of people who have traveled down many different roads coming together to see what possible good can be had from their situations. “This is a rare commodity in the world!” she says. “You see a group of children and teens who have courageously opened themselves up to a possible experience of helping themselves by making this life-changing choice. This is how I believe we are setting the child up for success.”
She adds, “So many people carry their pain and suffering throughout their life and well into adulthood, never knowing the incredible power of taking care of yourself, talking, listening, therapy, expression, mental health and sharing burden. Through camp and other resources provided by the Sheilah A Doyle foundation, we have now begun setting these children up for success.”
For many people, it is not easy to ask for help. But for those who have experienced a loss due to homicide, this critical skill can be even more elusive. “These children now know to seek out enriching experiences that will help heal them and change their path,” says Sara. “These children now know that something like camp and caring people - who live in and out of their communities - exist. The greatest lesson that I saw these children leave camp with is that their present does not predict their future and everyone can choose exactly who they want to be, regardless of their surroundings.”
In reflecting about her work on behalf of the foundation, Sara thoughtfully says, “I have dedicated my career and beyond to non-profits and have been continuously crushed by the politics involved and the constant disparity all around. I am happy to find a family, community-based organization that shares the same values and love for what I do. The Sheilah A. Doyle Foundation exists solely to reach people in a positive way and change lives person by person.”
Strategic Partner: The Black Star Project
“Kids are just waiting for someone to allow them to speak about the violence around them. When you say, ‘Hey this is not o.k. or how are you feeling about this?’ … it is like they were holding their breath and are just ready to let it go.”
- Jami Becka, Program Director
The Blackstar Project
What is the goal of the Black Star Project?
We seek to improve the quality of life in the Black American and Latino communities of Chicago by eliminating the racial academic achievement gap. In so doing, many other quality-of-life gaps improve. We work to help preschool through college students succeed academically by providing educational services while supporting parents, families and communities to effectively provide educational supports for their children and students.
How do you think the S.A.D. Foundation relates to Chicago’s youth?
It’s a much-needed service in the community. We work with a lot of students who see violence. Recently, nine people were shot and killed in Chicago in one week. A lot of schools just go about their business after that. This is a detriment to the kids. When someone dies due to violence, we need to stop and say “this is not ok” and ask them how they are feeling about it and see what is going on with them. It’s a big deal. The kids in the schools have been desensitized to it. We do all kinds of mentoring with the kids, and it’s really horrible when kids die or family members die so often due to violence. No one recognizes what the kids are going through. It’s treated like they need to just go on, and that’s a huge disservice to the kids. I think it’s great what the S.A.D. Foundation is doing.
How did The Black Star Project start?
The Black Star Project began as a small mentoring program in two Chicago public schools in 1996. Today, we are an organization of 11 staff people serving 125 schools – public, private and charter schools. We have about 300 volunteers. We have gained national recognition for our innovative programs that engage and inspire students, parents and communities to improve educational outcomes.
What types of initiatives do you get behind?
The Black Star Project's multiple initiatives address parent development, student engagement and educational advocacy. For example, two programs are now in their fourteenth year. The Student Motivation Program provides classroom-based mentoring. The Barbara Ann Sizemore Communiversity for Educational Excellence is a series of community meetings to help close the academic achievement gap.
We helped start the Million Father March, inviting fathers to take their children to school on the first day. It’s now in 767 cities nationwide. Also, we started the Black Male Achievement Mentoring Initiative in January of 2013. Throughout the month, people are mentoring black males in 195 cities. We started it with the help of Susan Taylor, head of the national mentoring movement and the Open Society Foundation.
How did you connect with the Sheilah A. Doyle Foundation?
The Sheilah A. Doyle Foundation contacted us in July of 2012 because we facilitate Chicago Congress of Parents, a resource program for parents. We have an e-blast that reaches about 50,000 and used it to send out information for S.A.D. volunteers and campers. They also helped us send out information about our Saturday University – a free tutoring program.
Does helping youth cope with loss lead to breaking the cycle of violence?
The S.A.D. Foundation is right on this. The only way that the violent cycle is broken is if kids can express what they are going through and recognize that violence is wrong. No one is giving a voice to kids’ feelings and the kids begin to normalize it. They can think of different life options for themselves if they stop to recognize that.
Did any of the students you work with attend the September 7-9, 2012 camp?
I know the foundation had interest from a few volunteers and several calls from families we serve. Going forward with our mentoring program, the foundation is something we will refer kids to more often. It is definitely on our radar now.
As you work with kids directly, are they hungry to share their story?
I go to the schools and see what is going on. They are hungry for that kind of attention. I liken it to a conspiracy because they all know how they feel and know what’s going on. The kids are just waiting for someone to allow them to speak about the violence around them. When you say, “Hey this is not o.k. or how are you feeling about this?” … it is like they were holding their breath and are just ready to let it go.
Spread the News
Black Star Project’s Saturday University
Free tutoring program throughout Chicago and suburban locations including
Westchester (in the offices of Senator Kimberly A. Lightford), Blue Island, Richton Park,
and South Bend Indiana.
- Serves 250+ people five years old to adults preparing for the GED.
- All sites are donated and accommodate small group sessions staffed by 70 volunteers.
- Covers math, reading and writing instruction.
- Call (773) 285-9600 to register or visit www.blackstarproject.org.
Strategic Partner: Comfort Zone
An Interview with Pete Shrock, National Program Director, Comfort Zone Camp
Scrawled in black crayon on a white poster board were the words: Papa, I miss you very much. Have fun pouring out the rain. A large heart encircled the note. This is one of thousands of sentiments shared by youth ages 7 to 17 who attend Comfort Zone camps across the country each year. The Sheilah A. Doyle Foundation is proud to sponsor its annual camps in partnership with Comfort Zone.
The core values of each organization run parallel: helping kids heal and grow through a healthy approach to grieving. The following is an interview with Pete Shrock from Comfort Zone’s headquarters in Richmond, Virginia (comfortzonecamp.org)
What is Comfort Zone Camp?
Comfort Zone Camp is a bereavement camp that transforms the lives of children who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling, or primary caregiver. The free camps mix traditional camp activities with confidence building programs, one-on-one mentoring, safe risk taking and age-based support groups that break the emotional isolation grief often brings. Comfort Zone is well beyond just a camp; it’s a philosophy of resilience for the more than 8,000 children served to date. We have 15,000 trained volunteers and 10 percent of our volunteers were campers.
What did you think about the S.A.D. Foundation’s Fall 2011 camp?
That weekend shaped the minds for tomorrow’s leaders. These two programs truly collaborated for the betterment of community. It’s a vulnerable population. These two missions, two passions collided … and now you will see the ripple effects for years to come.
How did you and the S.A.D. Foundation find each other?
Comfort Zone has served kids throughout Chicago for 10 years. We offer travel scholarships nationwide. We received a phone call from Kevin Doyle with interest in a camp for children in the Chicago area; it was like a match made in heaven. We saw that Kevin wanted to make a difference. With our missions put together, we created a platform for kids struggling with a death of a parent by homicide. Our program provides critical self-esteem for success.
Why is the age group for S.A.D. Foundation campers so important?
We chose seven to 17 years old, a time when youth transitions to young adult. It’s a key time for our services and help. That transition is really important because most services stop at 18, but emotional functioning and cognitive skills don’t -- so during the largest transition of your life, there’s a tremendous need, a lot of hurdles, a lot of struggles.
The impact of a traumatic loss stunts your life skills and creates struggles with trusting, opening up, positive risk-taking – crucial skills to be a successful, healthy adult. There’s a need for support and encouragement, and it is tremendous.
What are your thoughts about the Sheilah A. Doyle Foundation?
You’re looking at two nonprofits built out of a place of emptiness. When you live through something and you can use that to use momentum to help others - that’s a powerful mission. Both (organizations) are like “because something bad happened to me doesn’t mean my life has to be bad.”
Comfort Zone and S.A.D. created hope out of something negative. The kids we help will learn that message too. When you look at a child that has had an opportunity to gain perspective and get a view on their life, it allows them to have power. They say “I can create change.” And they want to immediately give it to someone else. Without it, suicide, depression, substance abuse, negative coping skills, lack of trust and all those things (can happen) … a lifetime of thinking and feeling that is very different than a lifetime (of positive living).
How did Comfort Zone start?
Comfort Zone started when a nine-year old lost her mother. By 12, she had lost her father. She grew up going to summer camp and it was the only time she felt at peace and connected. She took her loss in life and founded Comfort Zone. It’s the ripple effect you want to see happen.
How can a person make a difference in the life of a grieving child?
Become familiar with organizations so you can recommend them to someone or volunteer. Learn about it before it impacts you personally. We as a society need to be more intentional and find out how you can have a direct impact on this. It’s a simple suggestion – a willingness not to have to fix something, but be present and actively listen; it’s one of the most powerful tools. Kids always say what they miss the most are the conversations, the opportunities to talk, and our program is so successful because we allow them to tell the story in their voice and to tell the truth. No judgement, just listening.
Is there any online help you recommend?
A great resource is www.hellogrief.com, a social media resource for the professional, family member, child, anyone who is affected by grief. Members can create personal profiles, a memory wall in honor of their loved one, and get advice on a variety of topics related to grief.
Working with bereavement, we see what the nation is struggling with: deaths by cancer, heart-related illnesses, in-the-line-of-duty, suicide, homicide, father-losses. How will this affect this generation?
Strategic Partner: Purpose Over Pain - An Interview with Annette Holt, Director of Purpose Over Pain
When Annette Holt lost her only son to gun violence, she had a choice: embrace bitterness or be an agent for change. She chose to make a difference. Purpose Over Pain was launched in 2007 to give hope and support to people like herself. The group’s mantra: “While violence chose us without notice, we consciously choose to band together and turn our profound and collective pain into a sense of purpose to prevent future violence.” The following is an interview with Annette about Purpose Over Pain, a strategic partner instrumental in helping the S.A.D. Foundation raise awareness.
What is Purpose Over Pain?
Our mission is to end gun violence OVER living with the pain. We want to move the public conversation from the sensational of "what” happened to a more productive dialogue of "how" the community can actively care and find solutions.
What do you do?
We go out to schools and community groups to encourage parents to be an active part in their children’s life because if they aren’t, others will take that place and influence their children. There’s a lot of pressure on these young people. There are too many funerals, Teddy Bear memorials and friend’s faces on pictures --- we’re trying to change that. We also promote violence prevention educational programs for at-risk youth and promote a safe environment by advocating common-sense gun laws.
What did you think about the S.A.D. Foundation’s recent camp?
We thought it was great that they (the Doyle family) would take the time to honor their mother’s life by helping kids out. They are wonderful young people. I know their mother is so proud of them because they have the spirit to reach out. They could have chosen to be bitter and feel self-pity, but they are like us – reaching out to help others and in the process healing themselves. Nobody can understand how this feels unless you’ve gone through it. There is nothing on this earth that can replace my son. It’s painful every day, but to just know that there are other people who understand helps. Your heart hurts so much, like you’re having a heart attack … no, your heart is broken. That’s how I feel. That’s how we all feel.
What was your “aha” moment while you were there?
To see all those young people who had lost siblings and parents open up and to see them joyful, smiling and playing games – the things we take for granted every day. They gave from their hearts. It took courage to stand up and open up. I was blessed to be there. When you are around people who are like you, you can live again, you can make it. This was a snapshot for the world – Hispanic, white, African American, Asian, different social classes, all together. If the world looked like that, we wouldn’t have this violence. I want the day to come when we don’t have to have S.A.D. or Purpose Over Pain.
Are there any upcoming events you would like people to know about?
On Mother’s Day in 2012, we’ll be putting the killing of children with guns in the national spotlight. It’s one of the hardest days of the year when you’ve lost a child.
Any parting thoughts?
We’ve all lost our children so what greater gift can we give them but to help others.
For more information, visit www.purposeoverpain.org or email Annette at email@example.com.