Working Through Grief in the Volcano Room

The Dougy Center in Oregon Helps Children and Families Heal


Girl Playing in Volcano Room
One of the most popular rooms at The Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families in Portland, Oregon, is the Volcano Room, where children can go to release of their excess energy. “The Volcano Room is a big energy room,” says Brennan Wood, former participant of the Center, and currently Associate Director of Development there.  “Young kids who have experienced a death in their family often have big emotions that they can’t express. In the Volcano Room they can express their feelings in whatever form they’re comfortable with because the walls and floor have gymnastics padding, and soft stuff for kids to jump on.”

The Dougy Center, which provides peer support groups for grieving children and teens from three through 18 years of age and their families, as well as young adults 19 through 30, was founded in 1982 by Beverly Chappell in tribute to Dougy Turno, a young boy who died of an inoperable brain tumor at age 13. In August 1981, Dougy wrote a poignant letter to Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, pioneer and author in the field of death and dying, asking why no one would speak to him of dying, even when he was facing his own death. Dr. Kübler-Ross corresponded with Dougy, and encouraged Beverly Chappell to meet him and his family, which later led Chappell to start support groups for grieving children.

“Our mission is to provide support in a safe place where children, teens, young adults and their families grieving a death can share their experiences,” says Executive Director Donna L. Schuurman, EdD, FT. "Unsupported grieving can lead to poverty, depression, substance abuse, anti-social or suicidal  behaviors, physical complications, and even criminal behavior. But The Dougy Center’s unique peer grief support program is preventative and helps to address these risk factors.” Participants meet others who also have experienced the death of a parent, primary caretaker, brother, sister or teen friend because of illness, accident, suicide or homicide. That was helpful to Wood, who came to The Dougy Center when she was 13.

Brennan and Her Mother
“My mom died of breast cancer three days after my twelfth birthday,” says Brennan Wood, 33 (pictured right, with her mother). “In my family we didn’t talk about it. She was 36 when she died. She had three kids, and just didn’t know how to talk to us about it. My mom couldn’t imagine anything but a happy ending.” She adds, “My older sister was 15, my brother 17. I was stuck in the chaos. When my dad decided to remarry, I tried to tell him that it wasn’t working for me. I remember yelling at him. He tried to reassure me, ‘You’re fine. You are going to be fine.’ I asked, ‘What if I’m not?’”

“I knew that I needed some help; I came to The Dougy Center for about a year and a half,” says Wood. “Here we don’t believe grief is an eight-week program. For me, it was extremely powerful to be with kids and adult volunteers adults who listened to me and gave me a safe place to be. I really believe The Dougy Center saved my life. I might still be alive, but my life would look very different.”

Wood began doing speaking engagements at age 15 for the center, and participated in volunteer training. She left Portland at 19, worked in various jobs and traveled the country, but returned to The Dougy Center four years ago. “I knew I was coming back to work here; they just didn’t know it yet,” she says, laughing.

Walking Together to the Center
Over 20,000 children and their adult family members have benefited from The Dougy Center in the past 26 years. The Center (pictured, right) serves Portland and the greater metropolitan area, stretching to northwest Oregon and southwest Washington. All services are provided free of charge. Says Schuurman, “A death in the family often brings financial chaos. We want to be sure that our services are accessible for all children and their families.”

“We continue to grow in the population that we serve, and just recently opened our second satellite location,” notes Wood. “We are the first organization of our kind in the country, and have trained more than 170 independent centers across the United States, and around the world from Germany and Japan, to Canada and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We offer training and guidance so that they may adapt our program model to meet the needs of their communities. Our biggest challenge is maintaining and increasing our ongoing

Brennan Wood Today
funding so that we may serve more children and families. That is because one in 20 children will have a parent die before the age of 18, according to the US Census Bureau estimate.”  

“One of the wonderful things about being at The Dougy Center as a child was that I learned to incorporate my mom and her death into my life - into a part of who I am,” says Wood (left). “Grief is a natural reaction to a loss. There’s a quote that I like: ‘We grieve as deeply as we love.’ Grief is natural, and it’s normal, and it’s healthy. If kids are given the support they need, they will discover that they have within themselves the natural capacity to heal.”

To learn more about The Dougy Center, visit http://www.dougy.org/  or email help@dougy.org

                                                                                                  -- Reported by I. van der Leeden

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