Born in grief 30 years ago, The WARM Place heals children’s invisible wounds
FORT WORTH — It’s just grief.
“To this day, those words ring a bell in my head,” said Peggy Bohme.
That observation sparks a flood of memories for the retired mother of two who lost her eldest child, Michael, to bone cancer in 1984. In the months following that death, his surviving sibling, Meghan, suffered a series of small complaints — headaches, stomach aches, and chest pains.
Bohme and her husband, Lee, sought help from a therapist for their 9-year-old daughter but after three sessions the professional casually remarked, “There’s nothing wrong with her. She’s just grieving.”
Pent-up emotions or stress in children often result in psychosomatic symptoms.
“The therapist couldn’t refer us to anyone,” said Bohme, recalling the lack of bereavement resources for children. Even books on the subject were rare. “To help my child, I had to go by what my heart said and what I thought was the right thing to do.”
Finding a way to reach out to other grieving youngsters became part of the healing process.
On August 24, 1989, Bohme and the late Dr. John Richardson opened the doors to The WARM Place — the first grief support center for children in Texas and one of six in the U.S. The acronym WARM stands for “What About Remembering Me?” and was inspired by Meghan’s struggle.
The Bohmes met the pediatrician and his wife, Joan, at St. Andrew Parish and forged a close friendship during Michael’s cancer treatments. An influential Fort Worth native who also pushed for a Baby Moses law in Texas to safeguard newborns, Dr. Richardson remained on the board of directors at The WARM Place until his death April 29. Bohme believes the doctor’s strong ties to the business and medical communities were instrumental in making the nonprofit a reality.
“We met at John’s house after Mass one Sunday to talk about what the needs were,” the co-founder said. “He would see so many psychosomatic problems in his practice and find out later there was a death in the family.”
Thrilled with the idea of having a place where his pediatric patients could process their grief, Dr. Richardson began making phone calls.
“We couldn’t just do this on a whim, and he knew the people to ask [for sponsorships]. No one could say ‘no’ to John,” Bohme noted. “People were happy to support whatever he needed or wanted.”
Ruth Carter Stephenson was one of the first community leaders to respond with a $130,000 grant from the Carter Foundation. Other donations followed.
Inside a small prairie home rented from Cook Children’s Hospital for $5 a year, The WARM Place welcomed eight families on a Thursday evening. The first gathering of children, parents, and volunteers were all friends of people the organizers knew.
“That night was so incredible, I didn’t think my feet would touch the ground,” said Bohme, who patterned the session after a successful program implemented at The Dougy Center for Grieving Children and Families in Portland, Oregon. Named to honor Dougy Turno, a 13-year-old boy who died from an inoperable brain tumor, the grassroots effort was the first peer-based support initiative started for grieving children in the U.S.
Today, families coming to The WARM Place gather for a potluck dinner and easy conversation followed by age-appropriate support group meetings. A trained facilitator encourages youngsters to express their feelings through constructive comments and activities while parents move to a cozy living room for their own interaction. Year-round grief support services are provided to children ages three and a half to 18 as well as young adults age 19 to 25 at no cost. The length of time a family participates in the program is based on a family’s need.
In 2002, The WARM Place moved to a kid-friendly, craftsman-style home on Lipscomb Avenue where a 30th anniversary celebration is planned for August 24. Since its founding, the grief support agency has helped more than 38,000 children and their families cope with the loss of a loved one.
Pam Golliday plans to attend the milestone birthday bash with son, Garrett. When her husband died in a car accident in 2006, her preschool youngster had difficulty understanding what happened to his father. The WARM Place eased the 5-year-old through a rough transition.
“He got to meet with kids his own age in a small group and talk freely about what they were going through,” explained Golliday, who also developed a sense of community with other widowed parents. “Eventually he began to understand that death is final, and his father wasn’t coming back.”
When Garrett needed community service hours as a Nolan Catholic High School student, the mother/son team returned to The WARM Place as volunteers. The young man, now a freshman at Texas Tech University, cleaned the kitchen after the potluck dinner while his mother led a pre-teen support group.
“They did so much for us. We wanted to give something back,” she added. “Without The Warm Place, my son would have struggled with the loss of his dad and other issues growing up.”
Children visiting The WARM Place experience grief at a young age, but death is a certainty that will come up again.
“If they’re able to process grief in a healthy way, that helps them later on in life,” pointed out Shelley Spikes, the center’s executive director. “The program helps more than just one child. It impacts the children they meet in school and others they will come across in life. Our youngsters become much more compassionate toward individuals who are grieving.”
As The WARM Place turns 30, the “thank yous,” uttered by grateful parents are the words Bohme now hears most often. Retired since 2009, the St. Paul the Apostle parishioner remains on the board of directors but doesn’t view the nonprofit’s success as a personal triumph. She bristles when people call it “her baby.”
“It was never mine. It always belonged to the community,” she said. “When you reach out to help other people, you’re not thinking about yourself. Helping others helps you heal.”
For more information about The Warm Place and its services, please visit thewarmplace.org.