Nonprofit’s lifeline offers steadier course for WillMar Grief Services in Sonoma

Social Advocates for Youth, the Santa Rosa nonprofit, rescued the counseling service after learning about plans for its closure in spring.|

The WillMar Family Grief and Healing Center almost shut its doors in downtown Sonoma this spring after sharp drops in donations. Such a closure wasn’t OK with officials at Social Advocates for Youth, an organization that for more than four decades has provided housing, employment and counseling services to youth in Sonoma County.

The nonprofit group came to the rescue shortly after learning about the center’s imminent closure. Officials said it wasn’t a difficult decision, considering the impact the grief counseling facility has had on children and families in some of the darkest times of their lives. Since 2000, WillMar has provided free counseling and support to hundreds of children and teens struggling with the loss or illness of a loved one.

“It’s all about the heart,” SAY executive director Matt Martin said at a meeting with local leaders and potential donors.

Since taking over the program, SAY officials shortened the name to WillMar Grief Services. They also appointed Julie Iverson, who served as coordinator of school-based mental health services, to oversee WillMar. Iverson, who met with the center’s founder, Nina Sagall Gorbach, said she’s been focusing on personalizing the group projects to address each child’s needs.

“From the kids’ point of view, nothing has changed,” said Tess Woodbury, who received grief counseling there as a child and later returned as a volunteer.

“It’s still an incredibly warm place,” she said.

The popular drums remain in the front room for the kids to play. Fernando, the large, shabby stuffed bear, still occupies a corner where he’s been since the center opened 15 years ago. And the children still take off their shoes at the door, wash their hands and plop themselves on the poufs every week before the opening ceremony in the “Circle Room,” where they light a candle for a loved one, discuss their feelings, blow out the candles and then run out and play.

“That’s been routine since I was a kid there,” said Woodbury, who argued it’s crucial to keep the center the same for the children, whose lives have been turned upside down with the death or illness of a relative or friend.

“They’re already dealing with so much change, we don’t want to throw any more change at them,” she said. “We want to provide a safe and consistent place.”

Woodbury said WillMar benefits from being part of a larger organization with more robust staffing, particularly when it comes to fundraising. SAY last year had a budget of $5.2 million and a workforce of about 100 employees, including a grant-writing expert.

The 22-year-old Sonoma resident returned to WillMar five years ago to help the children learn to cope with the sudden death or illness of a loved one, as she had done more than a decade earlier. She was 7 when her mother died from cancer.

“At school, I had kids my age, but they didn’t know what I was going through,” she recalled one afternoon as she set out furniture in the Circle Room before the children arrived.

The weekly grief support groups resumed in early October. Iverson said they have about 35 children in the groups, which are held after school.

“We’re continuing to build from there,” Iverson said.

She voiced hope that one day they would be able to bus in teens from Santa Rosa and offer sessions in the summer. The peer support groups currently run through the school year, she said.

Sandy Ely, who has been volunteering at the center since it was founded, said she’s relieved to see it continue in operation and remain much the same.

Although WillMar had struggled financially for years, she said, it was a major blow for the children, their families and volunteers when they heard the center was going to close.

“It didn’t look like there was any prospect or hope that it was going to be saved,” Ely said.

“The biggest change that I noticed is just the relief in everybody,” she said. “Everybody is so happy to have them on board and to feel like WillMar has a future.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or On Twitter @eloisanews.

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