Kate’s Club provides a home for grief awareness and education throughout Metro Atlanta.
Since Feb. 26, 2012, millions of Americans have been outraged and rather expressive about slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin. Photos have surfaced throughout the Internet –- primarily on a myriad of Facebook profiles — of individuals wearing hoodies and proclaiming “I AM TRAYVON MARTIN.” People of all ages, races and backgrounds have marched down numerous streets; activists rallied and protested on the steps of various government offices while a stream of news headlines relating to the teen’s untimely death continue to flood the airwaves.
Tears or no tears, various communities collectively expressed their grief.
Now rewind to Jun. 2003; a then novice humanitarian — 23 year old Kate Atwood — knew that she could create a vehicle and culture that collectively advocates for, embraces and empowers young people and families that experienced a close loss to find a forum to confront, discuss and feel comfortable enough with others who share similar trauma. Armed with six supporters at a bowling alley and very little money, Kate created the self-titled Kate’s Club.
At age 12, Kate lost her mother, Audrey, to breast cancer; Kate considers the loss “the worst day of her life.” Eight years later, Kate – a counselor to 200 strangers at a Virginia bereavement camp – was still mute about her internal grief but experienced an epiphany being around the grieving youth. Even before that, she recalls losing a basketball game and crying about it, stating that it was easier to grieve in that moment. “The best service is mutually beneficial,” Kate believes. “You can really help yourself by helping others. When you make that connection, you hit the bullseye. Everybody should try to find a way to build giving and service in their lives. It’s one of the most amazing gifts to myself; so many of us walk around and search for purpose in our lives. I have the great fortune of waking up everyday and knowing that was the purpose.”
To date, over 500 Metro Atlanta youth ages five to 18 have become distinguished alumni of Kate’s vision. Kate’s Club offers fun-infested support systems and coping mechanisms: citywide field trips, Clubhouse Saturdays and Camp Good Mourning, an annual, three-day overnight activity-laden experience at Camp Twin Lakes. “We all go through life with bumps in the road and never want to endure that journey alone,” Kate says. “If we all just reach out and ask for help or reach out and offer help, the world is gonna be a better place. It’s time we pay attention to who’s around us, what’s happening to them and contribute to their lives: not just to our own.”
Kate’s Club’s West Peachtree Street office –“the Clubhouse” in the heart of Midtown Atlanta – is a pro bono safe haven and inner sanctum for anyone experiencing a devastating loss: equipped with bright cozy furniture, stuffed animals, plush pillows and pastel walls. Bags upon crates of art supplies sit in almost every corner. Another hallway’s wall is composed of memory tiles, childrens’ handprints with captions identifying deceased loved ones. Located on the fifth floor, there is a teen lounge, a music room with a karaoke machine and a game room full of stacked board games. “As adults, it’s very easy to forget that kids don’t have the vocabulary to necessarily speak the words on what they’re feeling,” Kate says. “They are much better able to channel that through art and activity; kids navigate life that way. It’s a little less intimidating, and it’s more on their level. That’s the genesis of their community in their own space, own time and certainly in their own way.”
Outside of the staff’s offices and cubicles sit multiple wall frames of artwork, news articles, group photos and a smooth yet comfy gray chair. “I took the worst days of my life and created some of the best days of my life,” Kate says. “I turned it upside on its head, and I gave that to help others who are struggling with that same challenge.” The “living room” pays homage to Kate’s mother. As a matter of fact, each room is named in memory of a loss loved one. This particular Tues., Mar. 20, 2012 morning, Kate’s Club staff is running around getting in gear for the organization’s seventh Dinner of Champions at the Fox Theatre’s Egyptian Ballroom, Kate’s favorite time of the year.
Kate says via her phone interview five hours post-Clubhouse tour that facility is her spirit. Now what better way to show the effectiveness of Kate’s Club than to have an awesome staff of experienced supporters – especially since Kate has advanced to Executive Director duties for the Arby’s Foundation? Cynthia Daniel, Program Director, believes grief should be defined very broadly: referring to those incarcerated, deported or even a pet that died. Daniel — a chaplain of 17 years who lost her father at age two – has visited over 52 Gwinnett County classes (third through fifth grade) with a total of 1,500 students as part of a grief reach grant program between New York Life, the National Alliance for Grieving Children (NAGC) and KC Connects, an outreach program under Kate’s Club that stresses the importance of grief education in various settings. As her primary teaching tool, Daniel uses a kindness tree – drawn on poster board with leaves, in the form of hands, for youth to write about something or someone they wish they could see more often. She was instrumental in getting “Grief Awareness Day” signed into the state of Georgia after a successful march in front of the State Capital. She will go on to lead a discussion in June before NAGC to lobby for “National Grief Awareness Day.”
“It’s not healthy to grieve being silent,” Daniel says. “Human beings have a tremendous capacity to care about each other. Empowering adults is part of empowering children. Some teachers have their own grief that they haven’t dealt with; the teachers are also listening and participating in that conversation. We can talk about this stuff more openly and probably be a healthier society. We can heal from this.” So far so good considering the reception from the school system – both kids and teachers — is at an all-time high; Daniel adds that humanity, empathy and kindness education are all woven into the lesson. “When we’re all together, it’s a different picture. Stories can be told in other ways than words. We get through that sadness by coming together and supporting one another: knowing that we’re not alone even if we feel lonely. When we have losses, we either become more bitter or more compassionate. We can miss someone if we haven’t met them or if we don’t remember them. We still know they’re not there.”
Emily Hawkins, Executive Director, says she’s never experienced loss as a child but is compelled by getting in touch with mortality. Coming into the organization with a strong background in nonprofit management and fundraising, interacting with the kids has helped to strengthen her own morale and involvement. “It’s a real interesting journey to see these kids and how incredible they bravely face something that scares us all. The stories are sad, but they’re uplifting. The support the kids give each other is really where the change happens. It’s magical to see them connect in a way that they are not able to in their own families.”
At the Dinner of Champions, hosted underneath somber blue lighting by The Bert Show’s Bert Weiss, Kate’s Club raised an amazing $56K to assist in funding programs and initiatives for future participants. The organization handed out a few honors to those whose work and advocacy runs parallel lines with their mission: Grace Hensel (Child Champion); Todd Owens (Volunteer Champion); New York Life (Corporate Champion); LeighAnn Costley, CPA and Katie Long, Esq. (Community Champions). The Spirit of Kate’s Club honoree, former Between the Lines-turned-Conversations radio host Valerie Jackson, was deemed by Kate to have “continued to live a full life through the faith of her grief.” The wife of the late Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, she remains a strong community advocate: interviewing a variety of public intellectuals and allowing them to share inspirational stories via radio, holding an active hand in philanthropy – finding The Maynard Jackson Youth Foundation and serving on the board of The Alliance For A New Humanity — and causes relating to economically disadvantaged youth. Sharing her own bouts with grief,Jackson doesn’t fail to empower the audience during her acceptance speech: drawing on a metaphor of a cocoon and a butterfly to convey her message.
“Death is a part of life. Grief is a constant companion. Lean into the pain. Learn how to accept the gift of sympathy. Once we realize that, we live forever.”
Kate’s Club relies on generous donations from various individuals, foundations and corporate partners along with around 100 active volunteers. The organization notes that over 40,000 children in Metro Atlanta will become affected by death; the entire organization body knows that they have their work cut out for them but believes that civic engagement begins with the individual, too. “We still have so much work to do,” Kate says. “The biggest gift I’ve been given in the past nine years is to understand that when your life is about something bigger than yourself, it is the best way to live. I have the biggest family in my backyard. We all know someone who is grieving. If you can just take one minute, think of all the people who has lost somebody, give them a call or send them an e-mail. Just let them know you’re thinking about them; that’s the most powerful tool we all have…that we can all do.”
For more information on Kate’s Club, log onto www.katesclub.org, add Kate’s Club on Facebook or follow @KatesClub on Twitter.
Words: Christopher Daniel
Photos: JSG Photography (Dinner of Champions); Kate’s Club