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nea baptist charitable foundation dedicated to helping jonesboro overcome grief
by Audrey Hanes, photography by Melissa Donner

Forty years after the creation of NEA Baptist Clinic and 16 years after the clinic’s physicians started a charitable foundation dedicated to caring for those in need in their community, NEA Baptist Charitable Foundation has introduced a sixth program to its free offerings. The Center for Good Grief opened its doors in October and is already helping many who are dealing with the loss of a loved one.

Jonesboro’s center is the third of its kind within the Baptist system; the Kemmons Wilson Family Center for Good Grief opened in Memphis in 2005, and a location in Midtown Memphis opened this year, as well. The idea for a free grief center stemmed from Camp Good Grief, the area’s first grief camp for children, which began in 1999.

“(Jonesboro’s) Center for Good Grief has been five years in the making,” said Robbie Johnson, the executive director of NEA Baptist Charitable Foundation. “As we were getting ready to transition to the new campus, we had a chance to do a self-analysis as a foundation. We gathered around 100 people – leaders in the community and physicians – and asked about areas we were doing well in and areas we could develop more. We had a physician speak up and say that we weren’t dealing with grief. We asked ourselves, ‘When there isn’t a good outcome, how do we help them deal with that grief?’”

Johnson toured the center in Memphis, and as soon as the foundation reached a point where it had the time and money to dedicate to creating Jonesboro’s Center for Good Grief, plans were put into motion. Kim and Chris Fowler made a generous donation in honor of Chrystal Taylor that helped make the Center for Good Grief possible, along with grants from Baptist Memorial Health Care Foundation and Mid-America Transplant Foundation. Gamble Home Furnishings also completely furnished the center free of charge, and donations from Junior Auxiliary of Jonesboro and the Ritter Family Endowment have also made an impact.

The next step was finding the perfect team to run the center. Johnson set his sights on Mandy Young, LCSW, who has been with Baptist since 2012 and has more than a decade of experience in mental health and health care, both in veteran and civilian sectors.

“We would not be open right now if not for Mandy and her team,” said Johnson. “It takes someone with a passion and ability to do this. It was Angela Kelly’s vision that started this in Memphis, and we got her input on our vision. It was a matter of prayer; we had to pray for the right people.”

Joining Young are Annie Thompson, LCSW, RIST; Anna Paige Frein, LMSW; and Jill Cagle, bereavement coordinator.

“Every bit of this has been a true God thing – how they ended up as staff here,” said Young. “HR was pretty blown away at how everyone ended up at the center. They’re phenomenal, they really are. They have a true passion for trying to find services for their clients. They’re willing to walk with the bereaved in our community, and that says a lot.”

One thing that helps the staff relate to clients who walk through the doors of the Center for Good Grief is that the center’s mission is one that hits close to home.

“This was a passion of mine from the very first time I toured the center in Memphis,” said Johnson. “We lost a daughter in 1998; she was 11 weeks old. I was grieving, and I didn’t know how to help my wife or how to help my son. We constantly had people avoid us or say the wrong things. … When we started discussing a Center for Good Grief in Jonesboro, I knew it was a place that would have helped my family directly.”

Young says that for her, when Johnson approached her about running the center, she thought of a time in her life when her own family experienced tragedy after tragedy in a two-year timeframe.

“Watching your family go through a tragic time and trying to be the strong one who is trying to find information and resources, it made me think that something like this would have been so helpful,” she said. “My own family had looked for services for nearly two years, and insurance was not accepted because it’s not classified as a mental health diagnosis; that’s one of the things that makes a center like this so necessary. Grief is not a billable diagnosis in the mental health world, therefore services are private pay or the needs are left unmet.

“In this whole process, we’ve been very aware of making sure things are safe and intentional in our therapy rooms. We want to ensure that this is a welcoming place to anyone going through the grief journey, because we’ve walked in those shoes ourselves.”

Every aspect of a client’s experience in the center is carefully thought out. There are different therapy rooms for children, teens and adults, depending on the needs of the person who is grieving. There are photos on the walls of campers who have been to Camp Good Grief, therapeutic tools children can use to act out scenarios they want to talk to the therapists about and so much more, all in a very soothing, homey environment.

“We want to make sure people have the skills to move forward on their journey without their loved one here,” said Young. “Some people will come one or two times, but some will have an ongoing therapeutic relationship. After a death, everyone copes in their own way; we just want to make sure they’re coping in a healthy way.”

“We want to make sure people have the skills to move forward on their journey without their loved one here,” said Young. “Some people will come one or two times, but some will have an ongoing therapeutic relationship. After a death, everyone copes in their own way; we just want to make sure they’re coping in a healthy way.”

Young and Johnson anticipate that the Center for Good Grief will outgrow the space and current staff power in three to five years, but that the expansion will only be possible with the help of supportive donors.

Services are available for all ages to anyone in the community with a grieving need, regardless as to where they receive their healthcare. No referral process is needed, and no billing or insurance information will be asked.

For more information about the NEA Baptist Charitable Foundation’s Center for Good Grief, email centerforgoodgrief@neabc.com, call (870) 936-7719 or visit neacfoundation.org.