Nonprofit Hands Holding Hearts is helping local children cope with the death of a loved one
By Samantha Bambino
At some point in life, everybody will experience the shattering grief that comes with losing a loved one. Many have trouble coming to terms with it, especially children, who sometimes can’t comprehend the finality of death. The most vulnerable population, kids are at considerable risk for behavioral and mental health issues if they don’t have a supportive and healthy outlet for their emotions. It was for this reason Hands Holding Hearts was created, a Newtown-based nonprofit formed to help children and their families regain balance in their lives after the death of a loved one.
For more than 12 years, Amy Keiper-Shaw, president of Hands Holding Hearts, worked as a counselor in a hospice program while facilitating a bereavement camp for children. After spending some time with these kids who were dealing with the death of a loved one, she realized they felt different than others their age.
“They couldn’t connect with the other kids,” she said.
They needed the support of each other and dedicated staff members, but once the camp was over, she felt they were saying “good luck with your grief” and sending the kids off to cope on their own.
It wasn’t until grief struck Keiper-Shaw’s own family that she fully comprehended the issue. When her cousin and his wife lost their infant, their other children needed an outlet to express their emotions, but what they found was a severe lack of support services in Bucks County. While there were groups in Willow Grove and Philadelphia, between dance class and Boy Scouts, there was no time to travel that distance.
After some reflection and with her years of bereavement experience and licensure in clinical social work, Keiper-Shaw realized she could offer support herself. In 2013, she kicked off her grassroots project of Hands Holding Hearts, which involved many trips to the dollar store to stock up on affordable craft supplies.
Though she was gaining a small following of children and families in need of support, one of her friends who was a lawyer encouraged her to take the project a step further by becoming a 501(c)(3) and getting liability insurance. Keiper-Shaw had a big heart, but if a child accidentally got hurt under her watch, she would be responsible.
Hands Holding Hearts was put on hold for two years while she obtained nonprofit status and insurance. Once all the loose ends were tied, she began contacting local funeral homes and pediatricians to send anyone in need of grief support her way. Though Keiper-Shaw had to start from square one again, she’s already well on her way to creating the environment she knew was needed in Bucks County years ago.
On Aug. 13, Hands Holding Hearts hosted its first monthly family bereavement session for children and their parents or caregivers. While Keiper-Shaw held a discussion with the adults, the children worked with her staff of volunteers. Throughout the session, they participated in games and crafts, including the creation of a screambox, which is made from a shoebox and other crafting supplies. The kids were able to scream into the box, which muffled the sound so they didn’t feel embarrassed.
“It’s OK to have all kinds of emotions, including anger,” she said.
The kids were able to connect with their peers in similar situations and realize they’re not alone in their grief, anger and sadness. The same went for the parents, who learned tips on how to be a model of healthy grief for their children.
A $5 donation is encouraged at each meeting to help with the costs of programming and crafting supplies, though Keiper-Shaw will never turn anyone away who needs the support. Still a grassroots effort, Hands Holding Hearts is staffed entirely by volunteers, most of whom have other full-time jobs.
“We do it because we feel it’s our mission,” she said.
Volunteers include a student in the process of obtaining a PhD in psychology and an art therapist. Another brings his therapy dog Murray, who Keiper-Shaw deemed the organization’s official mascot. The kids are able to talk to Murray about their feelings, something they may not feel comfortable doing with family or staff.
“He won’t tell secrets to anyone,” she said. “He’s been a good volunteer.”
All staff members are required to get a background check and child abuse clearance. Volunteers are always welcome.
While Keiper-Shaw continues to get Hands Holding Hearts fully up and running, she encourages anyone who has lost a loved one and needs a listening ear to give her a call. She reflected on one woman she spoke with for more than two hours on the phone after the loss of her newborn. The woman was in severe emotional pain, and Keiper-Shaw didn’t stop speaking with her until she was in a better state of mind.
“I want to be there for relief and support,” she said. ••
The next monthly bereavement session will take place on Sept. 10. RSVP by calling 267–992–6672 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. To donate to the organization, send a tax-deductible gift to Hands Holding Hearts, 80 Lower Silver Lake Road, Newtown, PA 18940 or visit handsholdinghearts.org.