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Lasting impact
One of Jessica’s House’s first clients aims to become grief counselor
Audrey Smallwood
Audrey Smallwood speaks at a Jessica’s House event in May about her time as a client of the grief support organization, then as a youth ambassador and eventually as a group facilitator. Smallwood said she will be majoring in Applied Psychology at college with an ultimate goal of expanding grief support access to children (SABRA STAFFORD/The Journal).

When Erin Nelson started the undertaking of turning the dream of a bereavement center for children into a reality, she turned to her good friend Gloria Smallwood for assistance. The two women threw themselves into the project, blissfully unaware that Glorias’s youngest daughter, Audrey Smallwood, would be part of the first cohort to utilize the services of Jessica’s House.

Audrey was 4-years-old when her father, Mark Smallwood, unexpectedly passed away. By the time she was 6-years-old, Jessica’s House, which was then a little red house on E. Main Street, was ready to start its first support group and Audrey was in need of an outlet for the grief she felt but didn’t know how to express.

“Losing my father at such a young age, I didn’t really have the ability to comprehend on my own what it meant to lose someone,” Audrey said. “Going to Jessica’s House I was able to have someone put into words and show me what death actually was like and what it meant in a way that I could understand. The amazing thing about Jessica’s house is that since I was only six-years-old I didn’t have to use words to express the grief I was experiencing. I was able to mourn through art, music, play. It was a very unique experience in that I was sitting in a room with other kids who were going through a similar experience. That was my favorite part of it all. That I wasn’t alone in the process.”

The mission of Jessica’s House is to provide a safe place for children, teens, young adults and their families to sift through the stages of grief. The organization currently supports more than 850 individuals from 38 surrounding cities. Jessica’s House currently offers eight specialized peer support groups as well as a school group program at various school sites in Stanislaus and Merced counties.  

Audrey continued with the support group for four years, finding new outlets and forging lasting bonds with her peers.

“At Jessica’s House there’s a variety of people from different backgrounds who come to group, but the one thing that bonds all of us together is that we all know what experiencing a death feels like,” she said.

Though her time in the support groups eventually came to an end, the link Audrey had with Jessica’s House did not. The services provided by Jessica’s House were in such demand that they had outgrown the little house on E. Main Street and they undertook a capital campaign to raise the needed funds to build a new permanent and bigger home in Turlock. Audrey, who was a freshman in high school at the time, took part in the campaign by becoming a youth ambassador and sharing her story with others and in the process, helped the organization raise $6.8 million.

“After being a youth ambassador and realizing the immense impact that I had the opportunity to have by using my voice, I realized that I wanted to become more involved with Jessica’s House,” Audrey said. “That’s when I decided to become a group facilitator.”

As a group facilitator, Audrey worked with children from the ages of five years to nine years, who had experienced a death of someone through suicide or homicide.

“As a facilitator, it is really a beautiful experience to be able to sit alongside a little girl who has also lost her dad and be able to tell and show her that there is life after death,” Audrey said. “A part of me also continued to heal because grief is an ongoing thing. It does get easier but it doesn’t go away. In helping children heal from their own losses, I also helped myself heal a little bit each time.”

The impact Jessica’s House has had on Audrey has been significant and is charting the course for her future. Now, at 18, Audrey will soon be setting off for Boston College, where she will be majoring in Applied Psychology with an ultimate goal of expanding grief support access to children.

“Audrey embodies what we hope for every child at Jessica’s House with post-traumatic growth,” said Erin Nelson, founder, and executive director of Jessica’s House. “If a child has support after a loss, they are more likely to develop resilience and a sense of meaning and purpose. Audrey’s goal of working in children’s bereavement demonstrates the positive change that’s possible in the face of adversity.

“To watch her go from a child in the program to a youth ambassador and volunteer and now be on her way to Boston College is the ultimate success story,” Nelson said. “I always say I hope she takes my job someday. We can’t wait to follow her career and watch the impact she will make in the field of children’s bereavement.”