Welcome to Chicago North Shore Moms Local Nonprofit Spotlight, where we highlight and introduce a local nonprofit’s inception and mission. This week we are spotlighting Willow House whose mission is to develop and provide supportive services for children, teens, young adults (“forgotten grievers”) and families coping with grief and the death of a loved one. CNSMoms had the honor of hearing from Stefanie Norris, the founder and retired Executive Director. Stefanie tells us how the inception of this life-changing resource began in her living room in 1997, what exactly led her to this idea and the research-backed importance of providing children, teens and young adults with grief support. If you or someone you know is in need of grief support services, please pass this along. Welcome, Stefanie.
Hi Stefanie. Thank you for introducing this grief support resource to our audience. Please introduce yourself.
Hi, my name is Stefanie Norris. I am the founder and retired Executive Director of Willow House. I remain active in the organization as the Clinical Consultant. I spent most of my “growing up years” living on Long Island in New York. Since 1971, I have lived in suburban Chicago and currently live in Lincolnshire.
What is the mission of Willow House?
The mission of Willow House is to develop and provide supportive services for children, teens and families coping with grief and the death of a loved one. We also provide crisis intervention, educational support, training and consultation to greater Chicago area schools that are coping with a death and crisis in their communities. Willow House’s programs are innovative, utilizing the latest research and best practices in mental health practice related to grief and trauma. The generous support of corporate and individual donations and grant and foundation funding, allow us to offer our services at NO COST to families, schools and the other community organizations we support.
When and why was Willow House established?
During my early years as a Clinical Social Worker in Hospice, only adult grief support was offered. As the Pediatric Social Work specialist, it became clear to me that children were, in fact, the “forgotten grievers” and would greatly benefit socially and emotionally with their grief attended to through specific grief support. Fortunately, the Hospice administration agreed and I was able to develop one of the earliest comprehensive Grief Support Programs for Children & Families in the Chicago area.
Children and teens grieve differently from adults. Their grief experience and process are directly related to their stage of development at the time of the death and continues developmentally on into adulthood. To be most effective supporting grieving children, I adopted a “Family Systems” approach, which includes educating and supporting parents on how to understand and support their grieving children, while grieving themselves. This Hospice program drew families from long distances, as far as Peoria and Wisconsin, and thus, the need for multiple sites became evident.
I was determined to make support available to those hundreds of children and families who were otherwise grieving alone. I gathered a group of professional colleagues and grieving parents as an “Advisory Board” and started Willow House in my living room in 1997.
Today, Willow House is the only independent program singularly devoted to this service in the state of Illinois and is known as the “go-to” organization in the greater Chicago area. Because of the need for organizations like Willow House throughout our country, I was also instrumental in co-founding the National Alliance for Grieving Children (NAGC) and served a term as its Board President.The NAGC is a nonprofit organization that raises awareness about the needs of children and teens who are grieving a death and provides education and resources for anyone who supports them.
Research of grief support services for children has grown over the years and repeatedly confirms that children whose grief is NOT attended to are more susceptible to emotional and social challenges that can result in anxiety, depression, social, emotional and cognitive problems, and that can lead to learning problems, unhealthy coping and extreme emotional distress and depression that can result in suicide. In essence, grief that is attended to provides invaluable support in all areas of childhood and adolescent development and is considered by most to be a “critical preventive” service.
Who was instrumental in helping you establish Willow House? Who would you like to thank? Who helps keep the mission strong today?
Professional colleagues and grieving parents and spouses who understood and had experienced the value of grief support for their children and themselves were instrumental in establishing Willow House. Additional support came from several of their families, and all of my family and several friends who contributed as volunteers and donors. I am most grateful to all of these folks, without whom Willow House would never had been possible.
Willow House’s mission remains strong through the support of former family members who are invaluable regular volunteers and donors, when possible. The amazing Executive Director of Willow House is David Scheffler who attended groups with his wife, daughter and son, as they were grieving the death of their sweet young daughter, Lauren. David brings his profound personal experience losing Lauren, and his family’s healing and hope in the support they had at Willow House to the role, along with his years of professional experience in nonprofit work. With help from the Board of Directors, David is the primary keeper of the mission and grows the organization stronger every day.
How do families who have lost a loved one and need grief support find support services through Willow House?
The best way to learn about our services is to visit our website at www.willowhouse.org. There, individuals can complete an inquiry form and one of our clinically trained professionals will contact the family member to discuss their needs, provide immediate support and consultation and enroll them in the Willow House program. For additional assistance and information, families and anyone interested can call 847-236-9300, Monday through Friday, between the hours of 9 a.m. and 6 p.m.
Exactly what services does Willow House provide for those grieving?
Willow House offers the following programs for grieving youth, young adults and their families:
- peer support groups
- survivors of suicide support
- expressive arts program
- in-school support groups and other school services, including education and crisis consultation support for educators, administrative staff and school mental health professionals, which provides them the tools needed to effectively support grieving students
- community-based support services, such as special workshops and training programs for those dealing with grief within their community.
What’s next for your family and for Willow House?
My family has grown to include two grandsons who are always “next” in all of our lives. We are so fortunate to have all of our children and grandchildren living in the Chicago area and I enjoy every minute I can spend with any and all of them. Each of them has always volunteered, donated, referred donors and volunteers to Willow House over these past 24 years. They will continue to do so, as will I. Being a volunteer Clinical Consultant for Willow House is an honor and joy that I hope to continue for a good long while.
Nana & Grandson Tommy
Nana and Grandson Will
Our goal is to continue to grow Willow House to serve more youth, young adults and families in need, as a leading local and national bereavement resource. We’re working on developing additional supportive programs for families, such as our new Spanish-speaking support groups, as well as developing model training programs for volunteers to deliver services, and publicly conveying accurate messages about people’s experience of grief and the healing process in order to transform broad societal misconceptions about grief.
How do our readers contribute or volunteer their time or get involved with Willow House?
There are several ways to get involved. We’re in need of volunteers for events throughout the year, administrative support at our Bannockburn headquarters, and for people to serve as facilitators at our support groups. We’re also seeking board members. Our programs are currently offered virtually and will be held live when it is safe to do so again.
We hope you can join us at our annual Walk & 5K Run, Sunday, July 18! Click here for details.
Of course, we’re always grateful for financial contributions of any size to help us to continue of offer our programs and services at no cost to families. Donations may be made at www.willowhouse.org or by mail at: Willow House, 2231 Lakeside Drive, Bannockburn, IL 60015.