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At grief workshop, a Louisville school community finds healing and hope

Three teens and one adult are around a long table. They are in a gym. One teen sits and rolls clay between his hands. Another hands a pencil to a third. And the third teen holds a small piece of yellow clay.
Jess Clark
Western High School student Cocoa Durrett (center) makes worry stones with her friends and a volunteer.

There are few spaces to process grief in our culture. One Louisville high school wants to change that.

In the gymnasium at Western High School, Youth Services Center Coordinator Stephanie Holton welcomed students and families as they arrived for the school’s third annual Hope and Healing event.

Holton got the idea for this event in 2021, when in a six-month time span, she lost five students and one alumnus, all to homicide.

“I found myself sitting in my car after attending a visitation for the last student, whose mom had also been my student, feeling hopeless as a person who cares deeply about kids,” she said.

She found out from Jefferson County Public Schools that educators with ideas for projects could apply to receive federal grant funding. The funding was provided to districts through the GEER act of 2021, and meant for pandemic relief. She knew immediately her school community needed an event around trauma and grief.

With about $1,800 Holton partnered with Hosparus Health Grief Counseling Center, W.A.G.S. Pet Therapy of Kentucky and Western High School student groups to offer an evening of art, therapy, counseling, food and companionship. This year 77 people attended.

Holton got students from the culinary program to cook the meal. Art students helped assemble the crafts, the choir sang during the ceremony and students in the marketing program designed fliers to advertise the event.

“This is a hard topic, and so what we realized is to get more kids to participate in this event we had to say, ‘We need you, there’s something for you to do,’” Holton explained.

At one table near the back of the gym, Western High School art student Cocoa Durrett was participating for a second year.

“It’s a good thing to have for people who’ve lost somebody,” Durrett said.

Durrett’s father passed away earlier this year. She said she’s attended to both get support and give it to others. She and her friends made “worry stones” out of clay with the help of a Hosparus Health volunteer.

Inside the worry stone students folded in a message written on a tiny piece of paper: a hope, dream or something they want to remember.

Durrett folded in a message about her art, and pressed the yellow clay flat with her thumb.

“I want it to go everywhere, so I wrote about it being successful,” she said.

At a nearby table Western student Sean’Tavis Davidson painted in a template of two hands holding a heart with the words “Rest In Peace.”

A volunteer told him about the event as he was walking by the gym, and he decided it might be helpful.

“I be holding a lot of stuff in,” Davidson said.

The broader community was invited to the event as well.

Ginette Lindsey, 47, found out about the event at church. She’s mourning the deaths of her mother and mother-in-law. Lindsey doesn’t have any children at Western High School, but her mother-in-law graduated from this school, and she took it as a “sign.”

“I’m just so grateful that there are things like this for not only children, but older people,” she said.

Lindsey was making a luminary, drawing the two women holding hands on a transparent sheet of paper to wrap around a candle like a lantern shade.

“When in doubt, go with stick figures, right? And mumus, which is what they wore anyway,” she said, laughing.

Sitting at the same craft table, Western High School junior Jessie Reyes was making a luminary, too, in memory of her grandmother who passed away very recently.

“I made a little dove because we’re religious and just put a rose at the bottom because my grandma liked roses and her favorite color is red,” Reyes said.

Hand-made luminaires glow on a table in a high school gyn.
Jess Clark
Some participants made luminaries in memory of the people they are grieving.

Reyes’ mother Karina Thompson was also there, along with Reyes’ siblings.

Thompson said she’s been struggling with the loss of her mother, who lived with the family. They cared for her thirteen years before she died this year.

“We know that she is without pain, but the way I see it is like she left the pain with us,” Thompson said between tears.

Therapy is expensive, Reyes said, so free community events like this are helpful. She was decorating a small box in paper and jewels.

“On the outside you can be all messy, but on the — inside she’s always going to be inside,” she said.

After the crafts were finished, the group held a remembrance ceremony, with the help of the Western High School Chorale. Joe Ferry, program coordinator for Hosparus Health, told the group that it’s OK not to be OK.

“We wouldn’t be able to hurt so deeply if we weren’t able to love so deeply, and that is amazing,” he said.

Holton, the youth service center coordinator, said she’s hoping more schools in the district can create similar spaces where students, families and the community can find healing and hope together.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.

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