Our local chapter of Compassionate Friends was organized in 1983. I had lost my daughter, Cheryl, in November of 1981 to suicide, and my friend, June Lindsten had lost her son, Barry, that same year to an accident in Alaska. They were both 22. She found out about Compassionate Friends, and since we had no local chapter, she started going to meetings in Worcester. I found out about the group from the Luk Crises Center, and we both went to meetings in Worcester for the next two years. We talked about trying to get some sort of support group organized in the Gardner area, but it wasn't until we connected with Kristin Andrews, a counselor at Mount Wachusett Community College, that we were able to make some progress. Kristen was working with a Displaced Homemakers Group, a group of ladies who were going back into the work force after many years at home, and she found that several of these ladies were going back to work because they had lost children, and they felt the need to re -establish contact with people outside the home. Kristin realized that there was a need for a support group for families who had lost children.
Kristin found us a place to meet -- St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Gardner, where Father Gordon Hutchins always made us feel very welcome and where we continued to meet for nearly twenty years --, she obtained our charter and materials from the National Compassionate Friends to start our chapter, and she planned our Candlelight Service that first Christmas in 1983, which we have continued every year. The college provided us with materials to send notices to bereaved parents about our meetings. Later we obtained a small amount of funding from United Way.
Kristin stayed with us until we felt able to operate on our own. But since Compassionate Friends is supposed to be run by bereaved parents -- and Kristin didn't fall into that category -- she eventually turned it over to us with her blessing. It was a struggle. Attending that first meeting -- walking in that door wondering what you will find -- is not easy. We had many months when we felt encouraged if we had six people at the meeting. Three of us -- June, Phyllis Cochran from Winchendon, and myself -- took turns facilitating the meetings. At one point we almost gave up. We had one couple at the meeting, and they pleaded with us not to stop meeting because they needed us and waited each month to come to the meeting to get some help to get them through the next month. So we continued, and eventually, we had a few more people attend, and we had people offer to bring refreshments, and people sent "love gifts" which we used to start a library. Just as it is today, we had people who came a few times and then never came back. But eventually we had enough come and stay to help others so that were able to convince others that they could also facilitate a meeting.
I had started keeping a very rustic debit and credit notebook, just to keep track of what money went in and out. A few years down the road, we were fortunate enough to have a lady, Nancy Matesowicz who had lost her daughter, start coming to the group who had a very good business head, and she was surprised to find about our simple method of bookkeeping. Before we knew it, she had spreadsheets and our system computerized, and we became much more up-to-date. We started a one page newsletter with a printer donated by the company Nancy worked for, and that very same couple who had pleaded with us to keep going -- Jeanne and Dick Girardin -- were our first editors. Since we had very little money in those days, we did a lot of fund raising. We had yard sales, and for awhile we were selling refreshments at bingo games at Gardner High School.
We continued to meet at St. Paul's for many years until a new pastor decided they needed the church on Thursday nights for other things, and we were fortunate to have the pastor of Redemption Rock Church in Westminster, Tom Morin and his wife Maureen who had lost their son, attending our meetings. They very graciously invited us to meet in their church facilities, and they have been very generous with our group. We have had a variety of Chapter Leaders, Treasurers, and other officers over the years, as well as wonderful Newsletter Editors and a Bulk Mailing Crew who get the newsletter out every two months. We are so fortunate to have had so many wonderful people come through our doors -- who although they are struggling with the greatest loss they will ever experience -- still have room in their hearts to be there to help others learn to cope with their loss.
~ Submitted by Elaine Rodecki