Support Group Attendance on the Rise at Michael’s Place: All programs still offered free of charge

Michael's Place staffThose grieving the loss of a loved one often turn to family members, friends, and their church. For the past several years, they could also turn to Michael’s Place. Started by Chris Dennos in 2001 in honor of her cousin Michael Dendrinos, who died at the age of 14, it is the only facility of its kind north of Grand Rapids. It continues to grow, evidenced by its move last year to a building on Veterans Drive.

“For years, Michael’s Place operated out of different places,” said development coordinator Connie Wintzinger.

She noted that not only did the offices move from location to location, not all the activities could take place where its offices were located.

Today, that’s not a problem.

“This is the first time the support groups are on site,” Wintzinger said.
The building on Veteran’s Drive is owned by Jason Myers, who rents out the second floor, giving Michael’s Place the first floor and lower level.

“We’ve been here a year and it’s worked out very, very well. It’s been an amazing partnership,” she said.

Mindy Buell has been the executive director since the facility opened. She said grief often makes people feel isolated.

“I have seen the impact Michael’s Place can provide: healthy healing for people of all ages,” Buell said. “They can come here and realize they are not alone, and they can survive their loss. And not just survive, but begin to thrive.”

The loss of a spouse, child, parent or sibling can be debilitating financially, as well as emotionally. That’s why all the programs at Michael’s Place are offered free of charge. It receives grant funding from various sources, including a Movie Night at the State Theatre, as well as private donations.

Michael’s Place served 2,700 individuals in 2015, with 14 to 18 opportunities per month for people to utilize its services. Different groups – adults, children, men, women, those dealing with a loss from suicide – meet at different times. Bi-weekly Monday night dinners typically find 55 to 60 attending, including the facilitators.

“They are peers dealing with the same things,” said Wintzinger.
People deal with their losses in different ways, and Michael’s Place exists to give them a safe place to go to express their sorrow.

“It’s hard to come through those doors for the first time,” said Robin Flannery. Flannery herself came to Michael’s Place when she lost her husband, the father of her three children. Since then she has taken on the role of program and community education coordinator.

She makes it clear that Michael’s Place is not a counseling center.

Instead, it’s a place where those who have gone through similar challenges can lean on one another. “It’s a peer-to-peer support group,” Flannery said.

The center hosts dinners every other week for all members of a family. After dinner they break up into support groups. Flannery said the dinner is every bit as important as the after-meal sessions, as sitting down and having a meal alone or with kids but without a spouse and parent can be very difficult. At the Michael’s Place dinners, everyone is among friends. “It’s really fun to watch families. It’s a very welcoming environment,” she said.

Helping the grieving at work

In addition to hosting bereavement groups, Michael’s Place also offers assistance to businesses, agencies and schools that are in the midst of a bereavement crisis that affects their place of work. That commitment began in 2007 when four students in Elk Rapids schools died in the space of three weeks. The business model started a short time after that.

“It’s so important for us to train grief teams, help schools be prepared,” said Buell. “We want to create compassionate communities so teachers can help a grieving child and keep productivity going.”

It’s not just for the persons directly affected. When businesses acknowledge and deal with grief, it positively impacts the entire workplace. Buell said a company actually builds employee loyalty when grief is acknowledged. Michael’s Place helps employees understand how to support a co-worker who has had a death in the family and helps employers provide a compassionate method for employees to resume work while being sensitive to their loss.

Karen Browne, the CEO of Traverse Bay Area Credit Union, joined the board a year ago. “I learned about Michael’s Place from Connie when she came to TBA to look for sponsorship for movie night,” said Browne.
She’d lost her own son five years ago, but had no idea Michael’s Place existed. “I was shocked we (TBA) hadn’t heard about it. I started volunteering and expressed interest if they ever needed someone else on the board.”

Today several TBA staff members volunteer and serve on committees. “I think the need touches everyone. Everyone feels grief at some point,” Browne said.

By the Numbers:
Support group attendance has increased 40% from 2013-2015:
2013: 809 attendees
2015: 1,127 attendees
(Numbers do not include Robin’s Nest numbers, its school-based support and grief crisis assistance, or its outreach to workplaces who request help.)