MANCHESTER — Christine Phillips sits on a couch inside a beautiful Victorian house turned home of Friends of Aine’s Center for Grieving Children & Families.
Christine, who co-founded the nonprofit agency with her husband David Phillips, talks about a dream come true in the wake of tragedy. The couple lost their daughter Aine (pronounced Ahn-ya) suddenly and unexpectedly at age 8 on Aug. 10, 2010.
Christine, David and their daughter, Bella, were forced to learn to live again. Bella, who was 6 at the time, inspired a journey that has helped hundreds of children in New Hampshire.
“She said ‘I feel alone; no one at school knows how I feel,’” Christine says.
Christine and David were receiving grieving support, but it was harder to find for Bella. They did find a small and limited eight-week program with Home Health & Hospice Care in Merrimack.
“When she finished, she said ‘I want to do more,’” Christine says. That led to creating Friends of Aine as a fundraising organization to support the Merrimack program. “To be honest,” Christine adds, “at that time it was a survival technique.” David and Christine would grow those efforts into an agency with a mission to help children and families grieving a death navigate their path to a hopeful future. Thanks to the generosity of donors, Friends of Aine’s services are offered at no cost to families.
Friends of Aine will receive the Business & Industry Association’s 2023 New Hampshire Advantage Award, sponsored by Bank of America. The award celebrates businesses, organizations or projects that enhance the Granite State’s special character and quality of life in meaningful ways.
The honor will be presented at BIA’s 110th Annual Dinner and Awards Celebration, presented by Eversource, Wednesday, Oct. 25 at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Manchester. State Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, former NH Housing executive director Dean Christon, and Rath Young & Pignatelli attorney Sherilyn Burnett Young will receive BIA’s Lifetime Achievement Award, sponsored by Whelen Engineering Company.
One in 12 New Hampshire children grieve the loss of a loved one by age 18. The need for help was so great that in 2018 Home Health and Hospice Care gifted the support program to Christine and David. Restricted by using multiple locations with limited space, in 2021 they acquired the Victorian house that was the law office of Moquin & Daley, along with a house next door.
The peer-to-peer model features three eight-week sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays during the academic year. Typically, around 80 children and 40 adults participate in small groups. While Friends of Aine has a clinician on site in case of crisis, the model is built around letting kids be kids, even in grieving.
“Children grieve differently,” Christine says. “They go in and out. Because a child can have moments when they appear not to be grieving, adults often don’t give them all the support they need.”
The house is filled with rooms set up for different age groups: Littles (age 4-6), Middles (7-9) Tweens (10-12) and Teens (13-18, high schoolers). Children meet in groups of six to eight. Guardians of the children are required to stay on site during the sessions so Friends of Aine began offering help on how to parent a grieving child and to give them space to talk about their own grief. Adults typically meet in groups of eight to 10.
Christine stresses Friends of Aine is not gloom and doom, but a place where children feel safe. “It’s OK to be vulnerable, it’s OK to laugh, it’s OK to cry,” she says. “When a child comes in here, they think they’re the only kid this has happened to, but they learn they’re not alone. It’s amazing to see.”
Each session requires about 44 volunteers in roles ranging from group facilitators to greeters. Volunteers are essential to Friends of Aine, which has a staff of six. Recruitment happens year-round through lunch-and-learn events and training opportunities. Friends of Aine also has work study and internship programs for college students.
While direct support services are its heart and soul, Friends of Aine broadens its reach through its “Grief Backpack Initiative.” Purple backpacks containing a five-week program to help social workers, counselors and teachers assist grieving children and their peers are distributed to 125 schools in the state. Friends of Aine also offers grief education training workshops and consultations for educators and community workers.
Friends of Aine continues to raise awareness and build advocacy efforts. Christine testified before the Senate Finance Committee in support of increased investment in mental health services. One-third of children attending the Friends of Aine program lost a parent or loved one to an overdose or suicide.
“We’re an important part of the mental health structure in the state,” she says. “We’re preventative so that children can navigate the next adverse childhood experience. We help them develop coping skills. Grief is not a process that has a beginning and end. It never goes away. We just learn how to manage it.”
Fundraising is crucial for Friends of Aine, like most nonprofits. Its top events are the SEA of HOPE Gala in April and the Kids’ Try-athlon each August. But Christine says fundraisers “aren’t even close to being enough,” so they also rely on a grant writer, corporate sponsors and individual donors. Friends of Aine will hold an open house Nov. 15 to begin its annual appeal.
“We have to raise a lot more money because we need to continue to meet the need,” Christine says.
To purchase tickets for BIA’s Annual Dinner and to see a list of event sponsors, visit https://bit.ly/BIAAnnualDinner2023. To learn about sponsorship opportunities, email Lora McMahon.
Rick Fabrizio is director of communications and public policy for the BIA.
This article was originally written by Rick Fabrizio, published in the NH Business Review.