PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The grieving process is difficult for children who have lost a loved one. But thanks to Ryan’s Heart, a local nonprofit organization, it is now easier for them to move forward.
For approximately three years now, the group has been working to soothe the ache felt by grieving children and their families. Founded by members of Ryan Fox’s family, the organization is dedicated to helping bereaved children learn to cope with their grief.
Readers were first introduced to the foundation in 2008, when Kelly Gumprecht, the organization’s president, was working to get it off the ground. It was the death of her 34-year-old brother, Ryan Fox, in a single-vehicle accident in Perham in 2005 that sparked her to action. Gumprecht looked around at the three young children he left behind — Taylor, Sydney and Austyn, and realized that there were no grief support groups or organizations out there to help them. The closest was Pathfinders in Bangor and The Center for Grieving Children in Portland.
So she founded her own.
Her first step was to write 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. Ryan Fox’s parents, Jeffrey and Janice Fox, and his widow, Helen Fox, joined her to help form Ryan’s Heart. Gumprecht’s husband, Tony Gumprecht, is the organization’s vice president.
The family members built a website and wrote grants to secure funding as they created programs to assist children.
In 2009, they organized 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.
“We have expanded and now give the bags out through Hospice of Aroostook as well,” Gumprecht said Wednesday. “We have been doing that for two years now. We’ve given away between 150 and 175 bags.”
In 2009, Neighborhood Hearts, a 10-week grief support workshop for children and their families or caregivers who are experiencing the death of a loved one, was still a work in progress. Since then, Ryan’s Heart offered its first session last summer and is planning another session in the fall. Organizers also are looking to start another support group in Houlton.
“We have 10 trained facilitators who work with the kids to provide grief support,” said Gumprecht. “We have seen significant changes in the kids because of Neighborhood Hearts. We have also learned so much from them.”
“We had one young man who completely changed after the session,” she said. “He started dressing better, cleaning up more, being more respectful. He was able to talk about the loss he suffered. We also had a 7-year-old girl who taught every single one of us something valuable. This has been amazing.”
The organization has received funding from the United Way of Aroostook, conducts fundraisers and seeks grants to keep operating. The next fundraiser will be during the City Wide Yard Sale in Presque Isle on June 4.
As Gumprecht had hoped, Ryan Fox’s three children have gained a lot from what their aunt started. Gumprecht said all three youths are doing well, and although they have moved out of Aroostook County, they are still active in fundraising and in advocating for grief support organizations as a whole.
“They talk very openly about their dad and how much he meant to them,” she said. “And in the end, that is what we want. We want to let children know that the people they have lost can be remembered, they can stay with them. It is good to see.”
For information on Ryan’s Heart, log on to www.ryansheartnpo.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters may be sent to: Ryan’s Heart -NPO, 17 Harmony Way, Presque Isle 04769.