Kids' healing starts here

There once was a boy who came to the Dougy Center, a S.E. 52nd Avenue peer support organization for young people who have lost a family member.

The boy was sad, because he had seen a family member die violently. Maybe painting would make him feel better, he was told, so he'd paint when he visited the center twice a month.

Here's how the boy painted: He would soak his brush in one of two colors, black or bright red, and hurl the paint at the paper. Some would hit its target, but much of it would splatter on the windows, walls and floor of a tiny upstairs room. He did this again and again. For six months.

That's what kids may do at the Dougy Center, a Southeast Portland institution that has become a model for programs around the world. Its staff and more than 100 volunteers provide a crucial safety net for the deeply wounded, and they do so without judgment.

'We believe that within each person is the natural capacity to heal,' says Brennan Wood, the center's head of donor relations. 'What helps is love, support, understanding.'

The boy who is honored by what's now called the Splatter Paint Room is grown now, and a productive member of society, but people at the center still talk about the first corner he turned, marketing chief Lauren Dully Hubbard says.

'One day, he came in and said, 'Can I use all the colors now?'' she says.

The Dougy Center was founded in 1982 by Portlander Beverly Chappell, a registered nurse who observed that the skills of medical professionals often stopped at dealing with death and dying.

She was inspired by a vibrant 13-year-old named Dougy Turno, who encouraged other young patients at Oregon Health and Science University to talk about their lives in the months before his own was ended by an inoperable brain tumor.

By facing the unthinkable with similar bravery, the support group for grieving families that Chappell started in the basement of her home has grown into an organization with a $1 million annual budget - all of it from private donors - that has touched the lives of more than 20,000 people in the Portland area alone. Today it is located at 3909 S.E. 52nd Avenue, just south of Foster, in the Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood north of Woodstock.

The Dougy Center has offered inspiration and training to more than 170 programs worldwide, and its handbooks and other materials support grieving communities everywhere. It shipped guidebooks, activity books and brochures, free of charge, to New York after 9/11, and to families of the Virginia Tech shooting victims in April.

Dully Hubbard says the center, with 12 full-time staff members and roughly 100 volunteers, has grown to serve a market that once created a waiting list six months long.

Along with affiliated centers in Hillsboro and Canby, it offers a place where parents can share their experiences, young adults as old as 30 can meet, and 350 children visit each month.

The Dougy Center's services cost nothing, and participants are never asked to move on.

'The average time people are here is a year,' Dully Hubbard says, 'but we have no restrictions on how long they can stay.'

Toys, truth part of healing

Throughout the center's stately Craftsman house are themed rooms where children can draw, paint, play games, dress up, roughhouse and do just about anything that might assist them in their journey back to wholeness.

The kids are free to do as much, or as little, as they like.

'We don't push it,' Dully Hubbard says. 'As we hear stuff and see stuff, we ask them questions. We don't ask yes or no questions. We leave it open-ended.'

In one room is a sandbox littered with toys that include a miniature coffin and headstones. Dougy staffers say kids sometimes enact scenes of funerals or burials they were not allowed to attend.

Wood tells the story of a young boy who spent months playing with a toy train. 'He would play with the train set every time he came to the center,' she says. 'He would put the engine in his pocket and go play somewhere else.'

At the ceremony commemorating his departure from the center after one year, he hid behind his father initially, rather than offering parting words, as is customary.

But when his father spoke, mentioning the train set, the boy stepped forward with an explanation.

When his mother was alive, he told the others, she would often gather him up at lunchtime and take him to a place where the two could watch trains passing.

'We allow kids to do whatever they need to do,' Wood says. 'Play is their language.'

Dully Hubbard, who has two young children of her own, says a key component of the center's philosophy is being forthright with kids.

'You want to protect kids. You don't want them to feel pain,' she says. 'Our biggest thing here is, we want to tell them the truth. We never had a kid say, 'I'm so mad they told me the truth.' Kids are very in tune with what's going on.

'We use the real words. We don't try to soften it. It's much healthier for them to be very real. We want people to go through every feeling they have instead of ignoring it, and they're able to do that if they're in a safe place.'

Adults get a boost, too

Sarah Ohryn, a 32-year-old Southeast Portland mom, lost her husband in an industrial accident three years ago. She came to the center a year and a half later.

'It feels much better here, knowing people are sharing a grief process,' she says. Sharing the process with her are daughter Katryna, 8, and son Caleb, 6. The two thrash about in a carpeted room at the center as their mother speaks.

'I think it's important that they're meeting friends who have experienced something similar,' she says.

Ohryn readily admits that the center has helped her put her own life back together. She recently went into business and is rebuilding her social life.

'I was in a cloud before,' she says. 'It was everything I could do to get the kids off to school and go back to bed. 'It helps when I have another mom say, 'I remember feeling that way,' when someone comes up to you and says, 'You're a pillar of strength,' when you feel as weak as you can be. They build you up.'

Ohryn says she was considering 'closing out' at the center during the last summer break, feeling that she and her kids were ready to move on. Katryna and Caleb had another idea.

'I asked them,' she says. 'They said, 'We can't wait for Dougy Center to start'.' The family, still gathering its strength, will stick around a while longer.

Worst is behind them

Before Wood joined the staff at the center, she'd been a participant. She showed up as a 13-year-old, after her mother lost a battle with breast cancer at 36. Her parents, who had been a couple since grade school, had been unable to communicate with her and her two siblings about the situation.

'We didn't talk about her being sick. We didn't talk about her impending death. They didn't know how to talk to us about it. For the year after she died, everybody decided to keep trying to go on like everything was normal.'

With her father too grief-stricken to guide her, the young teen began to make unhealthy choices, her life lurching toward disaster. Yet she fought for her own well-being.

'I remember standing in the kitchen, screaming, 'This is not OK',' she says. 'The Dougy Center saved my life. I might still be alive, but it saved the direction I went in. What was most crucial for me was that there were five to seven adults who listened, who let me be where I was. They made it so that I was safe.'

Wood says supporting young trauma survivors is one thing. The center also helps them find a path going forward.

'We give kids tools for the future,' she says. 'All kids who have loss will experience it throughout their life. We give kids tools to do that more effectively than if they were on their own.

'People say, 'It's so sad, so tragic. How can you be there and listen to their stories?'' Brennan says. 'I know that we're changing lives every day. The worst thing that will ever happen in their life has already happened, and we can help them. That's very powerful.'

'I admire everyone who comes through our door, because they are taking care of themselves,' Dully Hubbard says. 'They are making themselves healthy.'

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