January 1, 2015
This coming year, 2016 will mark the 30th Anniversary of the founding of Fernside. I have been asked to reflect back to the beginning of Fernside and Rachel Burrell and share some thoughts about both. For those of you who want the history of Fernside, you can go to the Fernside website and find the historical beginnings. For those of you who want the inside scoop of what really happened when Rachel Burrell decided she wanted to start a grief center for children, then sit down, put your feet up and get ready for a story.
First of all, Rachel had always worked with children. She had been a nursery school teacher, a play therapist and taught piano. On the Saturday before David died, he told his mother that he hoped one day she would have her own school for kids. Fernside may not have been the school for kids that David had made reference to, but it did become a learning environment. The Fernside Pioneers, the first adult volunteers and Board Members, were the students, and they learned about grief from the experts, the children who came to meetings twice a month. The children were and continue to be the teachers. Learning from the children’s own words and expressions is the foundation of all Fernside programs and publications.
Fernside was never for Rachel and Paul but for the children. At the first Fernside meeting, as Rachel welcomed families, she directed her statements to the children and said, “We hope you will help us create Fernside.” And they did. Rachel never took credit for Fernside, nor did she take ownership of its evolution into a nationally-recognized grief support program. She openly credited these things to the children and families who, when given permission to grieve in a non-threatening atmosphere, formed Fernside. Rachel insisted on “hearing the voices of the children”, which allowed for the true spirit of Fernside to shine brightly. Rachel would take this knowledge that the children shared and share it with others. She would speak at anytime and anywhere to spread the words of the grieving child. There were luncheons, civic club meetings, funding opportunities, golf outings, you name it and she would be there. Her aim was to help all of us see the world through the eyes of the grieving child. Whenever and wherever Rachel spoke, she always told the children’s stories; she was their voice during a time when children were invisible grievers because of the unrealistic expectations of relatives, teachers and other adults.
I became an ardent fan of both Rachel and Paul Burrell in 1986. That is the year that Fernside became a reality. We met at Rachel and Paul’s house in 1986 and became known as the Friends of Fernside, or as Rachel liked to call us “the Pioneers”. We were venturing into uncharted lands, the world of the grieving child. There were limited articles to read and very few books that mentioned the grieving child. We relied heavily on information that was being funneled from the first children’s grief center in the United States. But Rachel had a dream; an obsessive, challenging and demanding dream. She was going to form a safe place for children who had experienced the death of a parent or sibling.
The original goals and expectations of Fernside were:
- To create a setting where the child would trust us enough to take off his/her mask and share feelings with us and peers.
- To be loving and confirming; to be non-judgmental.
- To make no closure, but to let the child set the pace for speaking and revealing.
- To impose no system or schema but to be teacher and student to each other.
- To listen.
- To provide continuity by our continuous presence.
- To know that we cannot “fix” it for the child, but to also know that the very presence of Fernside, as a place in the community, legitimizes the child’s feelings and shows that he/she is not alone.
Rachel called on many friends to help her in the beginning steps of this journey. Rachel and Paul spent countless hours obtaining funding, finding a place to house Fernside, and establishing a trusting rapport with grieving families. On December 2, 1986, the first meeting of Fernside was held on the 3rd floor of Knox Presbyterian Church. There were sixteen children in two small groups and one parent group. Space issues were only one of the problems. Sometimes it was very hard for us to see progress and even though we knew it intuitively, we did not realize that some children, just like adults, were comfortable sharing at different levels and in different ways. Maybe we didn’t realize that the kids were just as nervous as we were about starting Fernside and didn’t know how to act. Even though we were still figuring out how to do this thing called “children’s grief groups”, we heard from parents and teachers that the children were benefiting.
And we began to feel more comfortable in our roles as facilitators. We started looking for themes that could help us categorize the children’s expressions, we shared strategies and ideas to help children express their grief through different mediums and we listened. This was one of the things that Rachel spoke to when she stepped down from her position as Executive Director in 1998. She identified her vision for the future. I think she would be overjoyed at the evolution of Fernside and how those who have been charged with continuing the legacy have taken to heart the fundamental values on which Fernside was first established. These were Rachel’s visions:
A place of our own, with or without satellites.
Capacity to serve a more diversified and greater number of families without sacrificing quality on any level.
- May we never lose the hands-on feel and warmth.
- May we never lose our passion for our mission.
- May we never lose sight of our modest beginning and take pride in all we have been able to accomplish.
- May we be blessed with facilitators from all walks of life.
Rachel would have been so pleased that she would have written everyone a note. During the first several years of Fernside, Rachel would type notes to all of the children telling them about the group and thanking them for sharing. She also sent notes out to all of the facilitators. Notes, thank you notes, thinking of you notes, thank you for the thank you notes, and notes on notes. This was a hallmark of Rachel. I can’t imagine what would have happened if Rachel had email or twitter during the first years of Fernside! As soon as she had an idea or when something happened, she would have had a message out. If the notes weren’t about a new family or the highlights of the last meeting, then they were affirmations of a job well done, or encouragement for the speech you were about to give. “Thanks for talking to that family on the phone.”, “You are going to do a great job at the conference.” We were always amazed at where she got the time or the memory to keep all of the families and activities straight, but she did.
I’ve kept all of Rachel’s notes and I get a smile on my face when I reread them. One in particular was sent after Rachel and I were discussing what her title should be when she stepped down from being Director of Fernside. We threw out some titles and settled on “Queen Rachel.” Of course two days later, I got a note telling me how she fondly remembered our lunch. It was signed by…Queen Rachel.
Fernside Volunteer Facilitator, Mary Ann Romanello, Ph.D.
Mary Ann Romanello, Ph.D. is a current volunteer at our Downtown location. She works with adults who have experienced the death of a current/former spouse or significant other. Mary Ann was one of the 13 “founding friends” of Fernside and has contributed to Fernside’s success in countless ways (too many to list here!) throughout our 30 years. She is a School Psychologist for Hamilton County Educational Services Center and has worked at St. Dominic School for the past 30 years. In addition to volunteering for Fernside she is involved with Girls on the Run. She has been married to Patrick Romanello for 37 years and they have two children, Sean and Genevieve.