Olivia’s House helps children thrive with loss and grief
by Ayleen Gontz | photography by Sarah Wockenfuss
In a brightly painted soundproof room filled with overstuffed furniture, a teenage girl turns on a video camera and begins to talk, slowly at first, her gaze skittering away every time she comes close to making eye contact with the camera. A few minutes later, when she leaves, a young girl, maybe 7 years old, enters. As she talks to the camera, she can’t sit still. She clasps her hands and pins them between her knees, her body rocking back and forth. Next comes a preteen boy, still and thoughtful as he talks.
This is The Confessional. A southern Pennsylvania nonprofit developed this unique approach as one part of an eight-week program to help children communicate their feelings about the death of a family member. The name may sound a bit intimidating, but Leslie Delp, founder of Olivia’s House — A Grief and Loss Center for Children, explains that the time and privacy to open up in The Confessional can often be a child’s first milestone in finding peace after a loved one dies.
“Everything at Olivia’s House — from activities to the murals on the walls — is designed to foster communication about grief,” Leslie says. “Grieving kids say that people tell them all the time they shouldn’t talk about how they’re feeling. The Confessional offers a safe space to do just that. As they learn more about the bereavement process and the vocabulary of death, they can open up to others and better understand themselves.”
Executive director K.C. Delp brought the idea of The Confessional to Olivia’s House, which has locations in York and Hanover, nine years ago after hearing the experiences of a staff’s family member on MTV’s The Real World. On that reality show, where cameras captured every moment of drama in a house full of strangers, the confessional was a private room in which guests could control the dialog and the camera. K.C. remembers being intrigued by how candidly they spoke off-air.
“What we were finding [at Olivia’s House] was that kids were putting their feelings on social media, and that was great because they were getting what’s on the inside out,” K.C. says. “But sometimes what they were saying in that moment, which might feel good to get off their chest, might come back to ‘bite’ them later.”
As a result, he proposed and set up full-scale video studios in both the York and Hanover locations so kids could share what was going on in their world. Most just talked to the camera; others read poetry or played songs they wrote; some vented. Whether they shared their recordings was their choice.
That idea of a safe space created with the aid of technology is now known as “technological anonymity,” a term that was coined during a PhD candidate’s study of The Confessional at Olivia’s House and its impact on the children.
This year, the focus of The Confessional has shifted. Each week during the eight-week Hearts Can Heal program, children ages 6 to 18 can spend three minutes in The Confessional to answer a question posed by the staff about their personal experience with bereavement. With the children’s consent, the videos are used in counseling sessions and in a webcast called Weekly Wisdom.
“We love to embrace the awkward at Olivia’s House, and asking children and teens to answer questions about their losses can be the very definition of awkward,” K.C. says. “Producing a webcast with the true grief experts — our program participants — was something the staff was excited to try.”
Program director Julia Dunn agrees.
“What came out of Weekly Wisdom was something I didn’t expect. The parents within the program were, week by week, gaining insight into their own children and how they were healing,” she says. “To spark that level of communication and understanding between family members was priceless.”
Olivia’s House, named partly in honor of Olivia Walton, the problem-solving and compassionate matriarch of the 1970s TV show The Waltons, was established in 2001. Services, including professional mental health referrals, the Hearts Can Heal program for school-age children, a four-week Little Ones program for preschoolers, and a two-year social program for alumni, are offered at no cost to Adams and York County families. Sessions for children run concurrently with parent sessions, and attendance is mandatory.
The curriculum supports children any time after a death.
“Olivia’s House gives the participants lifelong learning tools,” Leslie says. “We don’t have a magic potion. We give them a quiver filled with arrows that represent the tools they learn here — and they will use all of those tools in the real world.”
830 S. George St., York • 717-699-1133
101 Baltimore St., Hanover • 717-698-3586
The Olivian Gala, a fundraising event with dinner, live music, an open bar, and a silent and live auctions, will be held March 30 at the Country Club of York.
For more information: www.oliviashouse.com