The founders of a center for grief-stricken children say it’s time for a return to its Lakeland hometown – time to rebuild and renew the vision of a beloved friend who passed away but left them with a call to action.

Bethany Center for Grieving Children, now in its 30th year, will expand its services at the Good Shepherd Hospice Resource Center in North Lakeland. A fundraising campaign to raise more than half-million dollars is underway after a temporary halt to the project due to COVID in early 2020.

The center’s services began simply, in a garage office in Dixieland in 1991 with one grief counselor following the death of Bethany Ann Traviesa, a wife and mother. The center experienced steady growth and outgrew space at various locations.

In 2001, when the center became part of Good Shepherd Hospice, it left Lakeland to become part of the hospice’s Auburndale facility. The center’s expansion in North Lakeland will make its services more widely available, said Paula Creamer, director of philanthropy with Chapters Health Foundation in support of Good Shepherd Hospice.

“We’re bringing services back (to Lakeland). We’re not closing Auburndale or Sebring,” she said.

Free counseling is one of the services offered at two Bethany centers – in Auburndale and in Sebring – for families in Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties. Bereavement services usually aren’t funded by insurance or other providers. Good Shepherd Hospice said the centers, pre-COVID, in a typical year served nearly 7,000 clients from hospice and community families.

Although the center’s name recognition and philosophy has stayed the same over the years, the move to Auburndale left many of the Lakeland founders and original committee members disappointed, said Fran Munson Gompf, a close friend of Traviesa’s. A member of the center’s Lakeland Advisory Committee, she said the expansion campaign began after she asked committee member Allyson Moskowitz if they could open discussions to bring Bethany Center back to Lakeland.

“It was a Lakeland thing,” Gompf said. “I love the fact that it’s in Auburndale, but that’s not where Beth lived. Lakeland is where she saw the center. For it to come back is so exciting.”

The architectural firm of Furr, Wegman and Banks has designed a 1,500-square-foot expansion on the west side of the Good Shepherd Resource Center on Lakeland Hills Boulevard. Initial work has been done on walls and wiring. Rodda Construction is the builder.

The total projected campaign cost of $550,000 includes $400,000 for the construction, and $150,000 for operational costs, such as hiring a social worker and part time administrator), Creamer said.

The project takes Traviesa’s original concept – a place where kids would sit and talk about their feelings – to a new level. Plans include space for an interactive sand box in a play room, a game room with a state-of-the-art gaming floor, and a grief cave. The cave, like one in Auburndale, is a darkened room where children sit and write their feelings on a glow board. An expressive arts studio will be created from remodeling of an existing employee break room.

The new center will also include a grief services office, a counseling room and reception area. A garden will welcome children and their families at the front entrance.

“Establishing a bereavement location in the center’s hometown will provide much needed support for more children and families in Polk County and the surrounding communities,” said Kyle Zenkner, executive director of Good Shepherd Hospice.

Gompf said Traviesa urged her during her final months of life to organize and open a place where children could get help while grieving.

“It was to be a group of kids, sitting and having pizza, and talking about what was going on, something that they all understood,” Gompf said. “Beth was the one who had the vision, and she made me promise I’d do it. It was a challenge at first, but with God’s help we did it,” she added.

During the days Gompf drove Traviesa to cancer treatments, she also made time to read a book on what was needed to start a program.

“I told her we needed to find a group. ‘I don’t care about me but find a group for my kids,’” Gompf said Traviesa insisted. “‘They’re having a hard time dealing with my illness.’”

Traviesa’s vision in creating a center was not just for a beautiful space but for skilled and compassionate counseling.

“She told me who to talk to and who would be a good counselor,” Gompf said.

Cathleen Drake-Nelson said she’s grateful for the grief counseling she and her three children received at the Auburndale center after the death of her 73-year-old mother, Carol Drake.

“She was a wonderful grandmother and mom and a constant presence in my children’s lives, always thinking of adventures and so full of joy and love.  It was terrifying for all of us when she got sick, and especially for my children,” Drake-Nelson said. “When she died, they felt deprivation and even more so as time went on, during birthdays, holidays and times that she would have loved.” 

Going through a grief process proved harder than she thought, Drake-Nelson said. At the beginning, though deep in grief, she said she realized even with a close family, she needed more support than she could provide her children or thought they might need. When they began their counseling process, COVID restrictions were in place and sessions were by phone or zoom.

“From the first conversation with our grief counselor, I felt relieved,” Drake-Nelson said. “She was so understanding, kind, compassionate, an amazing listener. She is so knowledgeable and gave us true support as we navigated our way through.”

The use of art, games, talk sessions and letter writing hit the mark with her children, ages 10, 12 and 14, Drake-Nelson said.

“She used writing to help them understand their sense of loss and assured me when all (of them) were grieving appropriately,” she said. “They have a peer-to-peer support group. She would make occasional phone calls to me.”

While sessions were different for each child Drake-Nelson said, they all connected with the counselor.

“I knew from the minute she called we were in such good hands; she was so good at what she does … and wants to understand what each family is going through, “she said.

Drake-Nelson described a future advantage for her children because of the Bethany Center approach to grief support.

“It will be a blessing to them to be able to articulate the sense of loss they felt, and the ways they’re handling, processing and connecting with memories and validating as they grow,” she said.

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