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Pre-teen to raffle off homemade quilt for grief support group

Shortly after Amanda Witmer’s grandmother, affectionately known as “Kins,” passed away from lung cancer in September 2017, Witmer could tell something was not quite right with her daughters, Olivia and Marisa, now 12 and 10 respectively.

“They were not themselves,” Amanda said.

The girls had been very close to their great-grandmother, spending time with her nearly every day. When she got sick, they were involved in her care and spent time with her at The Gatehouse, an inpatient hospice unit at UPMC Susquehanna’s Divine Providence Campus.

The turning point, says Witmer, was that first Christmas when Kins’ death hit the whole family really hard.

Out of concern for her daughters, Witmer reached out to her pediatrician and the school counselor, both of whom recommended Heartworks, a grief support group that is part of Susquehanna Home Care & Hospice.

“They actually told us about the program in hospice,” said Witmer, adding she did not give it much thought at the time.

Heartworks is a free, family-oriented grief support group for children ages 4 to 18 and their parents. The children are split up into age appropriate groups, each led by a specially trained volunteer. The parents also meet in a group setting with a volunteer.

Linda Bryant, Heartworks Coordinator since 2012, notes that prior to Heartworks, there was grief support offered to adults, but nothing geared toward children and parents. Bryant, whose background is early-childhood education, knows the importance of getting parents involved.

“One of the greatest indicators of children doing well is parents doing well,” said Bryant.

The Witmer girls started attending Heartworks in January 2018.

Sharing feelings can be difficult, Olivia admitted.

“At first I was really quiet about how it affected me,” said Olivia.

Just nine months after starting Heartworks and a year after Kins’ death, tragedy struck the family again when Amanda Witmer’s father-in-law died.

“So,” said Amanda Witmer, “we just kept coming.”

Two years later, Olivia finds it easier to share with the group and likes the fact that everything said within her peer group is confidential, and she can take a “pass” if she does not feel like sharing.

“There is a huge emphasis on peer support,” said Bryant.

The group has grown to about 25 families, which means 40 to 50 participants at the twice-monthly meetings.

“I’ve been coming here two years and have seen everyone that has been added to our Heartworks family,” said Olivia.

One day, Olivia asked her mom where Heartworks gets the money for everything they provide, like the meals they serve and the crafts they do. When her mom explained to Olivia that the program is funded through donations, Olivia decided she wanted to give back to an organization that had given her so much.

She decided to make a queen-size quilt and raffle it off with all proceeds going to Heartworks.

Olivia learned how to quilt from her grandmother, Sharon Woleslagle, Kins’ daughter, and had made several quilts prior to the one for Heartworks. She picked a pattern and fabric with the help of her grandmother.

“I think I spent four hours in Ben Franklin picking out fabric,” said Olivia.

What Amanda thought would be a simple task of selling raffle tickets turned into something much bigger.

They have attended several craft shows where the quilt was displayed along with a treasure chest, hand painted by Olivia, that held the raffle tickets. To attract people to their stand, Olivia sold hand-made tab and receiving blankets, made using Kins’ old sewing machine. She intends to give those proceeds to Heartworks as well.

Heartworks has been fortunate in both volunteers and financial support, officials said. Volunteers come mainly from word of mouth and go through a comprehensive 20-hour training program offered once a year.

Olivia encourages those grieving to find support like her family did.

“If you are on the edge about it, you should try it because it might be exactly what you need, it might be exactly what you are missing,” said Olivia.

Olivia is selling raffle tickets for $1 each or 6 for $5. She will pull the winning ticket on Jan. 20 at Heartworks, for her 13th birthday. To purchase tickets or learn more about Heartworks, contact Linda Bryant at bryantl3@upmc.edu.

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