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Fort Worth nonprofit expands to help more children who have lost parents, siblings

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - 10/6/2023

When Elijah Applon went to his first potluck dinner at the Warm Place, he was nervous.

Elijah, who was 11 at time, was grappling with a loss unusual for a middle schooler. His brother Derrick had just died in a jet skiing accident.

Elijah didn’t know what to expect at the potluck. But he and his family had been told to bring Derrick’s favorite food, so they carried cheese and pepperoni pizzas into the Warm Place’s two-story house, tucked away on a side street near Fort Worth’s medical district.

That night, Elijah met with other kids who had lost a brother, or a sister, or a parent. They joined him in bringing their loved ones’ favorite meals. And Elijah, now 16, found people who were walking a similar path as him and his family.

The Warm Place, which officially opened its expanded facility on Thursday, provides free peer support to children and young adults who have lost a loved one. When the nonprofit opened in 1989, it was the first of its kind in Texas. Since then, it has supported more than 45,000 families through the grieving process. Any child who has lost a loved one can receive support, and the services are free and available for as long as the family needs them.

A few years after Elijah’s brother died, his family suffered another loss. In 2021, Michael Applon, Elijah’s father, died in a car accident. Now, Elijah participates in the support group for children who have lost a parent.

The Applons haven’t yet gone to a potluck dinner since their dad died. When they do, they’ll probably bring something that reflects their dad’s sweet tooth, like Dr. Pepper or cherry pie, said Amanda Applon, Elijah’s mother and Michael’s wife.

With the expanded facility, the Warm Place will be able to eliminate its waiting list of more than 150 children, said executive director Shelley Bettis. Inside the expanded home are living rooms with comfortable sofas and baskets with extra blankets; an open and inviting kitchen; and even an “emotion commotion” room, where kids who are having a hard time during a group session can safely let out their feelings by taking a whack at a hanging punching bag or scribbling on a massive sheet of butcher paper, said Warm Place communications manager Katy Kuack.

Each support group has a maximum of 14 kids, and the additional space will allow the Warm Place to start new support groups for children on the waiting list.

The Miller family began working with the Warm Place after the 2019 death of their son Grant. The four-month-old died from sudden infant death syndrome. At the time Grant’s older sisters were 2, 4 and 8 years old. The girls were lost and confused, said their father, Matt Miller.

“As the adults, we weren’t processing the very basics of life either,” Miller said. “Much less, we weren’t supporting our children in their grief.”

The grief, Miller said, was like treading water while lost at sea and fighting for your next breath.

The Warm Place provided a life raft.

While children attend their group sessions, parents are invited to a separate group specifically for them. For Miller, that meant talking through his loss with other fathers, instead of waiting for his daughters in the car or running errands while his daughters were inside, like he had anticipated.

Lynn Miller, Grant’s mom, said the parent groups were equally essential for their family.

The regular structure of the groups has helped their daughters learn coping strategies to help deal with their feelings, their parents said. Each daughter has found a talisman of sorts to help them process losing their little brother. The oldest daughter has clung to Grant’s pajamas, keeping them over her shoulder and bringing them with her to bed, Lynn Miller said. The other Millers have grown attached to the stuffed mermaid and monkey given to them when they started at the Warm Place, both offering reminders of the Warm Place’s comfort even when the girls are someplace else, their dad said.

The nonprofit’s leaders said the larger facilities will allow the Warm Place to serve 25% more families per year. All of the families who participate will process their grief in spaces that memorialize their loved ones. Each group room is decorated with art or photos of lost loved ones: A young woman’s senior yearbook photo; a toddler with chubby cheeks at the beach; a selfie of father and son together.

How to get help

The Warm Place is open to children age 3.5 to 18 and young adults age 19 to 25 who have experienced a loss. Anyone interested in joining a peer support group can call 817-870-2272 to schedule an intake appointment that will help determine if the Warm Place is the right fit for your child.

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