St. Augustine Catholic
Restoring Hope to Grieving Youth
At the Hour of Our Death
Profile: Father Tom Willis

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Restoring Hope to Grieving Youth
by Tom Tracy

Floria Alford was ending a long-term relationship, her second, as a young single mom in the early 1990s when she realized the trauma of another breakup was having on her 8-year-old, Matthew.

The youngster had become attached to Gloria’s longtime boyfriend, and Gloria could see the prospect of loosing contact with the older male was upsetting her son.

“The break up of the long-term relationship was like a second divorce and exacerbated everything,” Gloria said. “His school work and pictures were reflecting depressive issues and I was concerned.”

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, one out of five children suffer learning, emotional or behavioral problems following significant changes in the family system and the bereavement that follows divorce or the death of a parent. It is estimated that 75 percent of children and adolescents in chemical dependency hospitals are from single-parent families, with some seven out of 10, or 68 percent, of American youth are living in nontraditional families.

On the advice of a parish priest in Orlando, Fla., Gloria enrolled herself and Matthew in a local chapter of Rainbows, a Chicago-based program bringing together children of similar ages to share a meal, talk about their family situations and their feelings in a confidential setting - under the supervision of trained coordinators. At the same time, parents meet separately in groups to do much the same.

What is shared in the meetings stays there, even between parents and children. But Gloria noticed an almost immediate improvement in Matthew as he started to realize that there are other normal kids who don’t live with both their parents. The goal is to help children come to terms with their new family structure, and not blame themselves for a marriage breakup or death of a loved one.

“Throughout the Rainbows process, Matthew stopped being so depressive; things that were scarring me weren’t scaring me any longer,” said Gloria, who is a Rainbows coordinator for some 25 children this year at St. Joseph Parish in Jacksonville.

Carole Ginzl, who worked for 17 years as a parish director of religious education at St. Joseph Parish, brought the Rainbows program to the Jacksonville area after hearing about the program and realizing the impact of divorce on several close friends and their families.

Every few years, Carole travels to Chicago to attend Rainbow enrichment programs to stay up to date and help her facilitate the programs in Northeast Florida. Rainbows groups are currently held at nine parishes in the diocese and a Beaches Resource Center serving three to four public elementary schools in the Neptune Beach area. Carole is also working with Community Hospice to develop a pilot program to help schools identify kids who have unresolved issues resulting from family breakup.

“The overall need is phenomenal,” she said. “The problem for a child is that they are taken care of when the divorce first happens, but the problems arise a year later after everyone forgets about the divorce. That is when they have the unresolved grief. At first they go through denial where they look like they are fine but they’re really not.”

Carole said parents could help their teens prevent a lot of the negative promiscuity, drug use, suicidal thoughts and other bad behavior that can happen following the loss of a two-parent household. In terms of volunteer facilitators, Carole said she needs compassionate, caring adults who love children, but who also do not themselves have an unresolved divorce or bereavement issues.

“Every time you talk to a family who participates in Rainbows, they are so grateful because their whole life experience, communications and behavior at home and school improve. So many of the parents tell me that before the program their child wasn’t talking to them and they were sullen.”

One of the key messages that Rainbows attempts to instill in kids is that they are not responsible for their parents’ divorce. Rainbow facilitators sometimes pray with the youngsters when words alone won’t satisfy the pain of the situation. They also incorporate ritual into the final sessions, including a kind of letting-go exercise in which they write their hurts on pieces of paper, and then burn them as a gesture of letting God deal with it. They read pre-scripted letters to each other, expressing the forgiveness that they want to hear - but often don’t - from parents who were not there for them.

“I appreciate that we are in a Catholic school, and I can pray because sometimes there is nothing else to do but pray,” said Susan Woods, a campus minister who facilitates Rainbows at Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville. “The students may act embarrassed, but I can tell they really love it because prayer takes care of so many hurts that talking alone can’t. In the final session I do a little prayer ritual with them in the chapel and it is very powerful; ritual says so much in our faith.”

Each year, there are two groups of four or five students at Bishop Kenny who anonymously attend the Rainbows sessions every other week during their regularly scheduled religion class. This year, there is a separate group for boys and girls so that students feel more comfortable sharing feelings, no matter what they are.

Susan says that after 10 years of working with Rainbows, she knows the only way through a hurtful situation is to simply go through it; the group gives them a safe place to express emotions at that time. “Some feel they have to protect their parents and don’t tell them how bad they are feeling,” she said. “Through the process of sharing and expressing feelings, healing happens and with someone who knows what they are going through. I view my job as creating that safe place where they feel comfortable sharing what is really going on with them. They know that what gets said in the session, stays in the session. The students really minister to each other - it’s kind of a peer ministry. There is power in sharing what is really in your heart when it happens in a prayerful environment.”

For more information about Rainbows and the parishes that are participating in the program, call Carole Ginzl at (904) 363-9628 or visit or