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Reaching out to NM’s kids: Nonprofits focus on health, loneliness, loss and despair

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Editor’s note: Today, the Journal continues its annual Help for the Holidays series, spotlighting areas in which community members can reach out to neighbors in need. The series continues the next two Sundays.

According to a country song made popular by Merle Haggard, December is meant to be the happy time of year. That’s true, of course, especially for kids.

Young cancer patients and their families pose for a picture during the Children’s Cancer Fund of New Mexico’s 2018 Easter Egg Hunt in Albuquerque’s North Valley. CCFNM, a nonprofit organization, depends on grants and donations to carry out its mission of helping children and their families deal with the challenges of battling cancer. (Courtesy of CCFNM)

But for children who have lost a loved one due to death or family disruption, or are battling a cruel disease at a hospital, separated from siblings and schoolmates, December – any month of the year – can be a lonely and frightening time.

Diana Trujeque, executive director of the Children’s Cancer Fund of New Mexico, said that every year more than 50 New Mexico kids are diagnosed with cancer. And because the state’s only pediatric cancer-treatment facilities are in Albuquerque, most of those kids end up spending considerable chunks of time here, regardless of how distant their home is from the city.

“We offer every family a round-trip gas card, to get them home and back again for the next treatment,” Trujeque said. “That could be $10 if they live in Albuquerque or $80 if they are from Farmington. We get them meal cards to eat in (hospital) cafeterias. We help with rent, utilities, lots of car repairs, whatever the family needs to concentrate on their child’s cancer journey.”

Crafts made by children to help them express their feelings during a Children’s Grief Center of New Mexico program. (Courtesy of CGC)

Established in 1972, CCFNM is one of many Albuquerque-based nonprofits dedicated to meeting the needs of children and young people. Others include the Children’s Grief Center of New Mexico and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central New Mexico. Each of these three organizations focus on specific issues – health, loneliness, loss, despair.

“At any given time, we are serving 300 kids here in New Mexico,” said Trujeque, who lost her son, Erin, to cancer in 1985. “Three years of treatment is needed for children with leukemia.”

She said the families of those children are never charged a dime for help provided by CCFNM.

“We are not associated with any national organizations,” Trujeque said. “We raise all of our money here and spend it all in New Mexico.”

Bigs and Littles

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central New Mexico matches mentors – “big brothers” and “big sisters” – with kids 6 to 18 who need the stability, support and encouragement provided by an older person in their lives. The kids in the program often come from single-parent homes or homes with no parents, children who are more at risk for using alcohol and drugs, dropping out of school or getting involved in criminal activity.

A national organization, Big Brothers Big Sisters was founded in New York City in 1904. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central New Mexico will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year.

“We serve about 1,500 kids a year,” said Sharon Tenorio, chief of marketing and outreach for BBBS-CNM. “We probably make 350 to 400 matches a year.”

Mentors are referred to as Bigs and the kids they are teamed with are known as Littles. Families of the children pay nothing for the mentoring services.

Tenorio said BBBS-CNM has 840 female volunteers matched with girls this year, enough to team up with all the girls requesting mentors. She said 600 male volunteers have been matched with boys but that leaves 100 boys waiting six months to two years to be matched with a mentor.

A dad and his three daughters make a candle for a recently deceased mom as part of “Grief in the Holidays,” a workshop created by the Children’s Grief Center to help families prepare for a holiday season without a loved one. (Courtesy of CGC)

“We definitely need more male mentors,” Tenorio said. “Boys are naturally attracted to our program – or their families are – because many families are missing a male role model.”

Mentors, usually 18 or older, take kids on outings such as bike rides, hikes and shopping trips to the mall. They go to the movies, play video games together or share a pizza. Maybe mentors help kids with their homework or just sit quietly and listen to the youngsters’ thoughts and concerns.

BBBS-CNM serves Bernalillo and several other counties. It receives federal, state and local funding but still derives much of its operating funds from donations.

“Child safety is our No. 1 priority,” Tenorio said. “Once the match is made, we are in contact with the volunteer, the little brother or little sister and the family on a monthly basis, helping make the relationship grow, troubleshooting problems or just suggesting activities they should be doing.”

Healing broken hearts

The Children’s Grief Center of New Mexico, founded in 2001, provides support for children, teenagers, young adults (ages 5 to 25), and their caregivers, who are dealing with the trauma of losing loved ones such as a parent, a brother or sister.

During the school year, CGC offers peer support groups at its main location in Albuquerque and a satellite location in Rio Rancho. During the summer it hosts Camp Carazon, a free, three-day, two-night camp for kids 7 to senior year in high school, which is held in a different part of the state each year.

In the 2017-2018 fiscal year, the center served 618 people – two thirds of them children and young people and one-third adult caregivers – through its various programs.

“Families are never charged for our services and we are the only service of this kind in New Mexico,” said Shari O’Loughlin, CGC’s executive director. “All funding is through corporations and individuals, grants and donations. There is no government funding.”

Recognizing that children and young people process the death of a loved one differently than do adults, often blaming themselves for the loss of a mother, a father or a little brother, CGC helps them work through their grief by placing them in groups where they can talk about their feelings with children their own age. Specially designed games, art and activities are also employed to promote the healing of broken hearts.

“Our families meet twice a month with the same support group,” O’Loughlin said. “They can stay as long as they need to. The average stay is six to 18 months and any given group might have eight to 12 members and two bereavement facilitators.”

O’Loughlin got to know CGC in 2012 and 2013 when her own family needed its services.

“Kids (who are grieving) need to find a community,” she said. “Parents need help as well.”