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The East Bay Agency for Children's Circle of Care program offers support groups and counseling for kids and families coping with loss.

Circle of Care program offers new grief counseling services at Frick Middle School

on November 4, 2011

Of the five siblings, the youngest seemed to take his mother’s murder the hardest. The older siblings acted out, bullying classmates and causing problems at school. But the seven-year-old shut down. He was constantly fearful and rarely spoke—his older brother often talked to others for him.

A year after their mother’s boyfriend broke into the house and killed her, the five siblings’ remaining family brought them to the East Bay Agency for Children, an Oakland-based organization providing services and programs to students coping with emotional and behavioral problems.

“We worked with the older ones on being more like kids, so they could laugh more and have more fun,” said Shoshana Phoenixx-Dawn, support group coordinator for EBAC’s Circle of Care program, which offers counseling and support services to children and families coping with a relative’s death or life-threatening illness.

“We do a lot of different activities here about how to recognize emotions in yourself and others,” she said, adding that the older siblings even started to refer their classmates to counseling services. “We teach models of how to be a gentler soul rather than toughing it up and being able to recognize that anyone that tough is really pretty scared inside.”

East Bay Agency for Children’s Circle of Care program started in 1982 as a way to deliver basic illness and grief support to the community. Over the last three decades, the program has evolved to include individual and family counseling, as well as support groups. Kids often participate in themed art and play activities like crafting memory boxes while adults are encouraged to share their emotional struggles and strategies for managing grief.

Through the course of the siblings’ one-year stint in Circle of Care, the youngest brother changed as well. “He was suddenly coming out of his shell and was willing to talk to other people, do activities, have a good time and share his story,” Phoenixx-Dawn said. “Nobody here makes fun of you. To me, that’s the most powerful thing.”

Circle of Care has peer-based support groups in which kids are encouraged to participate in activities that prompt conversations regarding their lost loved ones or ill relatives. “Groups for some kids are exactly what they need in a social setting with themed activities around the grief piece,” said Alinya Charron, Circle of Care associate program director. “We incorporate artistic expression into our groups. We also do board games or go outside and do a basketball game that has to do with talking about feelings or talking about their special person.”

Graduate students and interns pursuing degrees in marriage and family therapy or social work lead individual and family therapy sessions. Program volunteers run the bi-weekly support groups, which are divided by age but occur simultaneously on Wednesday or Thursday nights. Children are divided into littles (3-5 year-olds), school age (6-12) and teens (13-18) while adults are split depending on whether they have been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, are caregivers or are bereaved.

“We serve the whole family as one unit,” Charron said. “Families say it’s really helpful to go through the process of grieving and having their own space.”

Families are encouraged to attend group nights together and then divide into separate sessions. Charron said that in contrast with other community counseling programs, Circle of Care is unique in its holistic approach. “They break off and go into separate groups, but it’s the whole family at one time,” she said. “Adults get to be around other adults, kids around kids—that’s where the healing is.”

The car ride home can be the best time for a family to process what happened at the sessions, Phoenixx-Dawn said, recalling the five siblings who attended each of the various age-based groups. “They were able to share as a family in ways they didn’t have a language for before,” she said. “They could talk about what happened in their groups, recognize feelings and how to deal with and express them without hurting anybody.”

Managing emotions is an especially important skill Phoenixx-Dawn and her colleagues emphasize in Circle of Care sessions, said Melanie Wartenberg, the Circle of Care clinical coordinator.

“When families are impacted by sudden death and violence, they’re often confused and disorganized about being able to take in information,” Wartenberg said. “They’re in shock and it’s not a time for families to seek out and access something totally unfamiliar to them. It’s a time when services need to come to them.”

In addition to Circle of Care’s on-site services, program employees also visit Oakland schools to provide individual counseling and emergency trauma support. “For us to be on school sites within communities with multiple layers of trauma allows us to serve kids in an environment familiar to them,” Wartenberg said, “and their parents don’t have to go outside the parameters of what they’re capable of in a time of tragedy and crisis.”

In September, The National Alliance for Grieving Children awarded Circle of Care funding to begin drop-in counseling at Frick Middle School’s on-site health center, which opened in mid-October. The drop-in sessions are scheduled to start later this month.

Charron said the inclusion of grief services at Frick’s health center will help target a population of students affected by community violence.

“Everybody knows somebody who has been shot or killed,” she said. “Sometimes they just need a space to share and talk about it. It’s not a complete fix but something that’s going to help give them the tools to cope and not get involved in things that are going to be negative to their lives.”

Though Circle of Care’s clinical and on-site school services are tailored to children and families experiencing many kinds of loss, an increasing number of people are seeking ways to cope with violence-related deaths. According to Charron, 15 percent of the program’s intake population had been impacted by violence, suicide or murder in 2009. By 2010, that number rose to 19 percent, and so far in 2011, 25 percent fall into this category.

At the Neighborhood Safety Summit earlier this month, Mayor Jean Quan presented a new crime reduction plan that she said would focus law enforcement and community support on the 100 blocks with the highest violent crime rates in the city. According to Quan, one of the goals of the plan is to provide counseling services to families of young people engaged in violent behavior.

Wartenberg agrees that there is a growing community need for accessible counseling. “It’s about being able to serve those particular children in a place where they’re then able to integrate and process some of that trauma so it doesn’t have to be acted out and further stress out families or educational system,” she said. “We help to keep things at a manageable level instead of reaching the boiling point.”

Phoenixx-Dawn was herself at risk for reaching such a point when, as a teenager, both parents passed away and she found herself with few resources to cope. After losing her mother to a three-year battle with breast cancer and her father to a heart attack just nine months later, she sought help. “I went to a widow support group because there were no resources for youth and there are still very few,” she said. “I was determined that no kids should ever go through it alone.”

Circle of Care services are provided on a sliding scale based on financial means, but according to Phoenixx-Dawn, no one is turned away due to lack of funds.

Families are welcome to use the program’s services for as long as necessary, but the five siblings Phoenixx-Dawn helped deal with their mother’s death faced a tough choice at the end of their one-year treatment.

“They got to the wonderful point where they couldn’t decide between soccer and Circle of Care,” she said with a laugh. “I said, ‘If you’re having to make that choice, do soccer.’ We’re here if they need to come back.”


  1. Natalie Van Tassel on November 5, 2011 at 10:07 am

    Thanks so much for the excellent article on Circle of Care. The volunteers and staff do outstanding work that too often is not known to the public. They also sponsor a Walk to Remember in May which gives all of us a chance to remember those we have lost, and to have a good time as we walk Lake Merritt.

    Natalie Van Tassel

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