Losing a mother or father, brother or sister, is hard for grownups. Think how hard that is for someone who is five, nine, or 15 years old. For a decade, Kate’s Club in Midtown has helped some 600 children and teens from across the metro area deal with the grief that follows the death of a parent or sibling. The organization serves kids through a number of ways including fun outings, support services and camp. Building a compassionate and empowering community is the ultimate goal, says Kate Atwood, the organization’s founder who was 12 when her mother died from a prolonged battle with cancer. In May, the Georgia Center for Nonprofits will honor the work of Kate’s Club, which relies on donations so it can offer kids its services for free.
Q: You lost your mom when you were so young. Is that something you ever get over?
A: The goal is not to get over it. I like to say that, when you lose a parent at such a young age, it really just adjusts your life path. It is something you cope with and live with for the duration of your life. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a very full life. That is the message and mission of Kate’s Club.
Q: Why was it important to start Kate’s Club?
A: I did not want any child to have to walk this walk alone. When my mom was in the hospital, she said, “I want to be there for your prom and wedding and all the big events, but what I really want to be there for are all the little moments when you need me.” She was right. It really was during the little moments that I missed her most and grieved the hardest for her. Kate’s Club is a community where even in those little moments, you have a friend who gets it and understands.
Q: Do children grieve differently from adults?
A: Every individual, even those living in the same house, grieves differently. You have to honor that and create a tolerant and compassionate community. Kids are really able to do that because they can be so honest.
Q: Do adults underestimate kids’ grief?
A: I do get frustrated when adults say, “Kids are so resilient.” A lot of studies show that kids will not begin to visibly grieve until a year or two after death has occurred. Kids often don’t have the vocabulary to express what they are feeling. I didn’t know what anxiety meant when I was 12 but I sure felt it. At Kate’s Club, we don’t expect kids to come in right away and tell their story. And we give them different ways to express emotions, through music, art, recreation, until they can find the words.
Q: Kate’s Club members range from five to 18 years old. Can you talk about the challenges of such a wide spectrum?
A: Most of our programs are organized in small groups based on age. Some organizations offer child bereavement programs that last only six or eight weeks. Many of our kids stay with us. We now have kids who graduate — they are too old to be a member — and come back to volunteer or be a mentor. That is a sign of the true cycle working.
Q: How has Kate’s Club changed your life?
A: I have found so much healing and purpose in having started Kate’s Club. I never could have imagined getting so much joy out of something so tragic as losing my mom.
Q: What have you learned from the kids at Kate’s Club?
A: How courageous they are, how much humility they have and how much they want to hold on to their dreams. We gather kids from all walks of life. They come to Kate’s Club to help themselves and end up helping each other.
The Sunday conversation is edited for length and clarity. Writer Ann Hardie can be reached by email at email@example.com.