Having a parent who is living with cancer or who has died from the disease is difficult for anyone, especially for young children. But the Peoria chapter of Kids Konnected is doing its part by offering a support group for local youth to come together and share their experiences and concerns.
When Kids Konnected was formed in California in 1993, it was called Komen Kids. When 11-year-old Jon Wagner-Holtz’s mother was treated for breast cancer, the youngster discovered that there were no places he could go to share his feelings with other children in the same situation. Jon took matters into his own hands and started a hotline where children with sick parents could communicate with one another. In 1997, Kids Konnected became a not-for-profit organization and has since grown to over 15 locations around the United States, with most locations concentrated on the west coast. This year, they are celebrating their 10th anniversary.
Kids Konnected offers its members a safe place to share their feelings and concerns about their loved one’s cancer with a group of peers. It is an opportunity to help and support others who are on the same journey, so that they know they are not alone.
“It is difficult to deal with a loved one’s illness,” said Peoria Kids Konnected facilitator Sharon Mindock. “It takes time to build trust and rapport with other children and the facilitators. At times, their loved one may not share anything about the cancer. Lots of questions are in the kids’ minds about the health and safety of their loved one.”
The Peoria Kids Konnected meets the first, second and third Mondays of each month. The first and third meetings are regular group meetings, while the second meeting of the month is the grief and loss group for those members that have lost a parent or spouse. Group members typically arrive around 6:30 p.m. for a half hour of food, drink and socializing. Groups then meet from 7 to 8 p.m. and are normally broken down into groups of 5- to 8-year-olds, 9- to 12-year-olds and teenagers. Groups may also be broken down by specific issues with which the children are dealing. Parents can also meet separately under the guidance of a facilitator to discuss their own issues. New members are welcomed to the group with a Kids Konnected teddy bear, presented by one of the other children in the group. The bear has information about the program and is not just a gift, but a symbol of the group’s caring and support for each member.
After attending Kids Konnected, one 17-year-old girl told the national website: “I have felt more secure since I’ve been coming to the groups. It helps when I am depressed; it helps to know there are other kids dealing with cancer too.” Kids Konnected also offers a nationwide 24-hour hotline (1-800-899-2866) which children can call with their questions or concerns or just to talk to someone about their experiences.
Specialized counselors help to facilitate these group meetings. When looking for a counselor, there are certain qualities that can really determine if a counselor is suited for this type of environment. “The counselors help facilitate and guide the group meetings,” said Chris Owens, associate director of Hult Health Education Center. “We generally look for master level and beyond graduates in the field of counseling. We may also look to individuals who have experiences in the counseling area of grief and loss who might not have been directly affected by cancer but are well aware of coping and understanding strategies.”
Counselors work in a unique environment and must adjust the program often to meet the needs of the children involved. “Each Monday night may bring a whole new group of participants,” Mindock said. “New kids may have some difficulty integrating into a group of strangers. I have to be flexible with planning. Although I have older kids, one night may be all 13-year-olds, while the next week may be all 18-year-olds.”
Kids Konnected also offers family outings throughout the year, having made trips in the past to restaurants, local sports games and even the Teddy, Set, Go! store at the Shoppes at Grand Prairie. The organization is not only rewarding and beneficial to the kids and parents involved, but also to the counselors and facilitators working with them. “Working with the kids is great,” Mindock said. “They are open and honest with their feelings. It is rewarding to see how the group process works—kids supporting each other. It is also rewarding to offer a message of hope when possible—a message of support when the going gets tough.”
Kids Konnected is always looking for volunteers in different areas of the organization. “We are actively looking for interested individuals to help serve on our advisory board,” Owens said. “All of our current members are volunteers. They have helped us identify gaps in our community where we might need to market the program as well as lend their expertise in helping out the program in ways of recruitment and marketing.”
The organization is funded by a grant from the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Peoria Memorial, but also relies on local donations. Kids Konnected meals and meetings are free of charge, but in order to plan meals and activities, participants are asked to inform the organization if they will be attending. Meetings take place at the Hult Health Education Center, located at 5215 N. Knoxville in Peoria. For more information, contact the Peoria chapter at 589- 1800 or visit the website at www.peoriakidskonnected.org. TPW