PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Kelly Gumprecht knew what she was feeling after her brother, 34-year-old Ryan Fox, was killed in a single-vehicle accident in Perham in 2005.
The feelings — shock, sadness, disbelief — all came bubbling to the surface in the days and weeks after his death.
“My parents lost a child,” she recalled. “I lost my only sibling.”
Gumprecht also knew that working past her grief would involve many things, and that people, groups and organizations in the area could help her do it.
In the midst of her sorrow, she looked at the three children her brother had left behind — Taylor, 14, Sydney, 10, and Austyn, 6 — whose grief was just as palpable.
It was then she realized that her nieces had no such support systems to lean on — and it sparked her to take action.
“My brother left three children behind, and I realized that there were no grief support groups or other such resources in this area to help them,” Gumprecht said during a recent interview. “There were professional counselors, but there was not a group they could go to, to see that they were not alone. I wanted to do something.”
That something was the creation of Ryan’s Heart, a local nonprofit organization for grieving children and their families. Founded in 2008 by the Fox family, the organization is dedicated to helping bereaved children learn to cope with their grief over the loss of a parent or a loved one.
Gumprecht, who is the organization’s president, knew back in 2005 that there were organizations in the state that provide support for grieving children. In Bangor, there is Pathfinders. The Center for Grieving Children is located in Portland.
In Aroostook County, however, such organizations did not exist.
Seeking to change that, Gumprecht started taking steps.
She wrote her own children’s book, “In Mamma’s Heart.” The book tells the story of two puppies that have lost their dad and how their mother helps them through it. Three additional stories also are in the works.
Seeing what she had done, Gumprecht said, her family wanted to help her do more.
In the years afterward, the Fox family founded Ryan’s Heart, an organization led by a six-member board of directors that includes Ryan Fox’s parents, Jeffrey and Janice Fox, and his widow, Helen Fox. Gumprecht’s husband, Tony Gumprecht, is the organization’s vice president.
Kelly Gumprecht said the organization built a Web site and wrote grants to secure funding as they created programs to assist children.
Initiatives spearheaded by Ryan’s Heart are now being implemented.
Little Hearts, an initiative detailed on the Web site, gives suggestions for activities adults can do with children to help them grieve. Children can make a “Scream Box,” a decorated cereal box stuffed with crumpled paper that they can scream into, or “Fly Like A Lion,” an activity in which children can jump from a table like a powerful animal and use loud noises to express their feelings.
Last month, volunteers gathered to pack bags as part of Project Forget Me Not. Under the program, bereaved children in three different age groups receive age appropriate tote bags filled with items geared toward helping them process grief.
Items packed into the bags include teddy bears, books on grief, photo albums and frames, journals and forget-me-not seeds. The bags have been distributed to Duncan Graves Funeral Homes in Presque Isle and Mars Hill, Mockler Funeral Home in Caribou and Lancaster-Morgan Funeral Home in Caribou.
“The bags are handed out at the funeral homes to kids who are grieving,” Gumprecht said. “They are for kids age 3 to age 18 and they are just simple tools to help them. The bears give them something to hold, the journals can help them work through their emotions and there are a number of other items that are helpful.”
Rick Duncan, the owner of Duncan Graves Funeral Home in Presque Isle, said Friday that the Project Forget Me Not tote bags have been well-received by children and parents.
“So often, it seems we overlook the importance of helping the younger family members in their grief process,” he said. “Suffering a loss for anyone is hard, but a young person has little understanding of why this is happening in their lives, and anything that we can do to help them better understand is, in my view, a worthwhile effort.”
Doug Hunter, the owner of Lancaster-Morgan Funeral Home, agreed.
“We have had a very positive response to the tote bags from both children and adults,” he said Friday. “This is a very fearful time in the lives of children who lose someone they love, and this project and the programs offered by Ryan’s Heart help them cope.”
Before being introduced to Ryan’s Heart, Hunter said that the funeral home handed out books to describe the grief process to children and help them cope, but he said that Project Forget Me Not is much better.
“This organization gives them more of the tools they need,” said Hunter.
Numerous other resources, in concert with links to other grief resources, are available on the Web site.
Gumprecht said that a goal of the organization is to distribute the bags to other County funeral homes.
In the meantime, the organization is formulating more programs.
Neighborhood Hearts, which is still a work in progress, will be a 10-week grief support workshop for children and their families or caregivers who are experiencing the death of a loved one.
The Ryan’s Heart Scholarship, which also is still in the works, will establish a scholarship fund for bereaved children.
Gumprecht said the organization also would conduct more fundraisers to spearhead new programs and support those already in place.
On Aug. 30, a fundraiser will be held at the annual Crown of Maine Balloon Festival in Presque Isle. Later that day, Ryan’s Heart will sponsor Hearts For Heaven, a balloon release to remember and honor loved ones who have died.
Gumprecht said that her brother, a wonderful father who held his daughters close to his own heart, would be proud of the work of his family.
“He was a fantastic father who was very family-oriented,” she said. “He loved to spend time with his wife and children, hunt and fish. He was a lot of fun.”
She added that she believes her brother also would be proud of the organization that has been started in his name.
“I think this is a way for him to reach out, even in death,” said Gumprecht.