Social Advocates for Youth taking over Sonoma’s WillMar grief center

Social Advocates for Youth is stepping up to take over the WillMar Family Grief and Healing Center, which was set to close next week amid financial troubles.|

Families and volunteers planned to gather at the WillMar Family Grief and Healing Center next week to bid farewell to the nonprofit organization after its board made a difficult call to shut down because of financial struggles.

That gathering no longer will be about goodbyes, but rather a new beginning for the Sonoma-based facility.

Social Advocates for Youth, the Santa Rosa organization, next week is taking over the grief center, which offers free counseling and support each year to more than a hundred Sonoma Valley children struggling with the loss or illness of a loved one.

“It stems from who we are as an organization - being there for children and youth when they need it the most,” said Matt Martin, executive director of SAY, an agency that has provided housing, employment and counseling services to youth in Sonoma County for more than four decades.

“These kids deserve that level of health and support,” Martin said. “We don’t want the healing to stop.”

WillMar was slated to close March 18 after years of “significant” decreases in donations, according to Jennifer Rochlin, the center’s interim executive director. She said the organization sought grants, held a gala to raise money and even looked at launching a major fundraising campaign.

It still wasn’t enough to overcome the financial challenges, particularly after the nonprofit group lost an annual $90,000 donation from William Hearst III, board chairman of the Hearst Corp., Rochlin said. He had been donating since the center’s inception, she said.

“It really impacted us in 2013 and 2014,” Rochlin said, adding that last year’s operating budget came in at $350,000.

WillMar was founded 15 years ago by marriage and family therapist Nina Sagall Gorbach and has worked closely with local schools.

“I feel overwhelmed with gratitude to know that this community does stand behind its social services,” Rochlin said about SAY taking over.

“It’s difficult to talk about the sadder parts of life, like the loss of a parent and best friends. They are things that people shy away from,” she said. “SAY recognized how important the services are for kids to be able to grow up wholly.”

Besides shortening the name to WillMar Services, not much about the operation in the 500 block of First Street West is expected to change.

“We’ll remain in the same site, the same people delivering services to the same kids,” Rochlin said, adding she expects no interruption because of the change.

Her position will be dissolved, and the center’s existing board of directors will be disbanded. However, the two contract clinicians and the more than two dozen volunteers, who underwent extensive training, will continue to provide the services, Rochlin said.

Many of the volunteers experienced traumatic losses in their childhood, said Rochlin, whose son and daughter, then 7 and 9 respectively, received counseling and support at WillMar after losing a close friend. She later joined the board, on which she served for two years before stepping in as interim director.

“For us, it was a safe place to go where they weren’t alone in the depths of grief,” she said.

At the center, children ages 3 to 19 have the opportunity to express their grief in peer support groups, facilitated by mental health professionals and trained volunteers. The center also offers art supplies, a piano and other activities to give kids various ways to express their grief without words, Rochlin said.

“The WillMar center itself is a magical place,” Martin said. “(We) knew we needed to do something.”

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

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