Photo by Mary Kerkes
Image: Betsy Stover, Founder of Ele’s Place & Monica Brancheau
In our conversation with Monica Brancheau about Ele’s Place Ann Arbor, we found a woman whose own triumph over cancer led her toward a deeper calling. As the Director of Ele’s Place, she has the opportunity to give families the chance to find their journey to joy after a devastating loss.
The Turning Point
“What would happen if I die? What would happen to my kids?”
These were the questions that played over and over in my head like a broken record in the six-week waiting period after hearing the words “You have cancer.”
Much had changed in the twelve years I taught in Detroit public schools. By the time I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012, I was already considering a career change and exploring my next step. When you get a cancer diagnosis, you re-evaluate your life; I knew by the time I received the diagnosis that a fork in the road was in front of me.
The day after my diagnosis, I sat my kids down on my bed and did the best I could to explain to a fifth grader and a third grader that I had breast cancer. The very next thing they asked me with tears in their eyes was, “Are you going to die?” To which the honest answer was, “I don’t know. I don’t think so,” but I couldn’t be sure.
At the time, I knew Ele’s Place existed and I had thought ahead enough in those six weeks to plan that if I did die, I wanted my kids to go to Ele’s Place. Just knowing that there was a place they could go to brought me comfort during a time of fear. During my treatments, I had decided not to go back to teaching and that it was time for a change.
So the question became: “What’s next?”
How I Got Started at Ele’s Place
To make such a significant career shift from teaching to non-profit fundraising can be daunting. Surrounding myself with encouraging women made the difference for me. When I look back, this has been true every time I’ve made a significant shift; it was other women who saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.
It’s no surprise then that when the director role opened up at Ele’s Place and people suggested I do it, I said “No” many times, just as I had to other similar opportunities before. I didn’t see myself as the director of a non-profit. While going through cancer treatments, I prayed, did a lot of soul-searching, and went back and forth on taking the position.
I took the leap and I’ve loved it. I now try to be that person for other women as well, to give them the confidence to do things they don’t see themselves doing. It’s an honor to lead this amazing team. The growth, the accomplishments, and the quality at Ele’s Place isn’t just me. It’s a team of amazing women who work very hard, don’t get paid a lot, and believe in the mission so much that they give everything they can. To be a part of that is an honor.
About Ele’s Place
Ele’s Place started in 1991 and was founded by Betsy and Woody Stover. They had three kids and a daughter who died at eleven months named Ele. They noticed their kids were grieving differently than they were and had different needs. They tried to find support for them, but what they were looking for didn’t exist in Michigan yet. Betsy and a group of women went on a nationwide search for a children’s grief center, and found one in Portland called The Dougy Center.
The Dougy Center helped Ele’s Place start in Lansing. It was very grassroots—in the basement of a church, with a handful of families and volunteers—and it’s now 27,000 individuals and includes an Ann Arbor location as of twelve years ago. We also have locations in Grand Rapids and Flint.
For eleven years in Ann Arbor, we rented both an office and a church for programming. We have programming Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights, but it’s not enough time to meet the needs of our community. This is one of the reasons we began the Home for Healing Hearts campaign for our own building. We also wanted a customized grief center where every room is designed to meet the needs of the kids.
The new building will allow us to have a fourth night of programming, and this summer we’ll be able to have family nights. Each week, we end up getting about 100 families who come in for support.
We know that in the state of Michigan, one in twelve kids will experience the death of a parent or child before the age of eighteen. Michigan is the fifteenth highest rate for children’s grief within the US—thus the need is large. We serve all of southeast Michigan and don’t have any geographical limitations. So if families are able to drive to us, we serve them. We’ve served families from Ohio and St. Clair Shores because they make this a priority for their family and come every week.
At Ele’s Place, we recognize that the need will never go away. Death is part of life, and sometimes it happens sooner than anyone would ever want it to happen. This means that our new building will always be needed. What makes the work we do so unique as a non-profit is that there’s no cost to families to receive our services. Not only that, but they can come for as long as they need; on average, families come for eleven months.
Our Philosophy on Grief
Our vision is that no child should ever grieve alone. We know children grieve differently than adults, more in pieces and chunks. We also know that if a child or teen is grieving alongside a parent who is also grieving, they often don’t want to express themselves because they already see the parent is struggling. So Ele’s Place gives them a safe place with other kids their age to to grieve.
Unfortunately, we hear all the time that after a short period, even with kids who have the most well-intentioned friends, the people in their lives have moved on and forget or don’t understand why the teen or young person is still struggling. Ele’s Place is a place where a child can come and say, “I’m still feeling angry, sad, etc” with others who truly understand.
Much of our programming is activity-based. This way, no one feels put on the spot, and children and teens can participate as much or as little as they like without feeling pressured. We also make it a point for the activities to be age-appropriate.
For school-aged children, we have activities that focus on identifying and naming the many feelings they may have, while simultaneously normalizing how those feelings may present themselves. This is the opposite of how they’re socialized, which is to “act normal” by ignoring the feelings that might drive certain behaviors that otherwise look like “acting out.” This way, the children learn how to name the feelings, how to accept that the feelings are normal, and that the way they want to express them is also normal. By removing the added burden of inauthentic participation in life, they finally have a place where they can be themselves and it allows them to actually heal.
With tweens, we focus on showing them healthy ways to manage the emotions as they come up. We give them healthy and concrete ways to release the sadness, pain, loss, and anger. We also help them discern when they need support so they can ask for it, and what coping strategies look like so that they have skills to use outside of Ele’s Place.
For teenagers, we give them the tools to have constructive conversations about the way they feel and learn how to reconcile the way they feel with the pace and norms of teenage life. This way they have the chance to see that they, too, are normal in their grieving; that they are not alone. The biggest turning point for them is the chance to let the façade of being a “normal teenager” go so they can really be themselves.
Through our activity-based approach, we give kids a structured and constructive way to grieve that doesn’t force them to have conversations they don’t want to have. Instead, they experience the chance to express what they’re feeling alongside others who understand. We strongly believe that everyone’s grief journey is unique and should be honored and respected.
Don’t Grieve Alone, Don’t Build Alone
The truth is, we couldn’t do what we do without our phenomenal, amazing, dedicated volunteers and board members. We have close to 100 volunteers who show up and work with our families one night every week. They commit to a year of service and go through a stellar training put on by our program team. Many have served beyond the one-year commitment and have been around for years. Our board members commit to a three-year term and are ambassadors for our mission. Our volunteers are incredible!
Our new building is an amazing asset to our community. I am thrilled to share that we have raised $7 million of our $7.6 million goal! Our incredible co-chairs of our Home for Healing Hearts campaign, Howdy Holmes and Sue Snyder, are fantastic advocates and ambassadors for children’s grief. I’m proud of the team. This has taken staff, volunteers, board members, and a cabinet focused on this incredible goal of a customized grief center for our community. There is still opportunity for many to make an impact on the life of a grieving child by getting involved in our Home for Healing Hearts Campaign. Ele’s Place is an insurance policy for all of us, today and tomorrow. It ensures that every family can have that journey to joy.
What we loved most about our conversation about Ele’s Place is the way it’s changing the narrative on grief for children and families. We love that there is a place that recognizes that children grieve differently than adults and need different tools and ways to talk about the grief so they can get back to what matters most—being a kid. If your family or a family you know could use the support Ele’s Place provides, please check out https://www.elesplace.org to learn more. If you would like to learn how you can be involved with the Home for Healing Hearts campaign visit elesplaceannarbor.org