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NewsDec 17, 2019

‘Every grieving child needs support’

Jennifer Wiles ’86 to expand grief services for special-needs youth through grant

Photo of four people holding a large check from New York Life Foundation for $100,000.
Above: (L-R) Jennifer Wiles, director of Children's Services, CareGroup Parmenter; Joe Harrold, corporate vice-president, New York Life; Jeanette Clough, president, Mount Auburn Hospital; and Donna Silva, president, CareGroup Parmenter Home Care & Hospice.

Finding support for grieving kids can be difficult, but it’s even scarcer for children with disabilities. Through a two-year, $100,000 Grief Reach grant from the New York Life Foundation, dance/movement therapist Jennifer Wiles ’86 will work to expand services for youth with special needs.

“Every grieving child need support,” says Wiles, director of Children’s Services at CareGroup Parmenter Home Care & Hospice/Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. As a student in our graduate dance/movement therapy program, Wiles was drawn to bereavement work, in particular focused on children.

“I feel that in order to really access their emotions, people need to move and they need to be aware of what is embodied in them as far as emotions and grief,” she says. For kids, dance/movement therapy encourages community, creativity, empathy and openness.

In her sessions, Wiles says, “We spend a lot of time moving before we talk. We all feel things in our bodies. We feel sadness, we feel anger, we feel joy. Once we recognize those feelings inside of us, it’s easier to express them.”

Wiles has more than 30 years of experience working with kids, including the last nine years directing Mount Auburn’s HEARTplay program, which offers free grief support for youth individually in their homes, as well as in group settings. Through her work, Wiles has seen an increasing need for bereavement therapy for children, teens and young adults with disabilities.

We all feel things in our bodies. We feel sadness, we feel anger, we feel joy. Once we recognize those feelings inside of us, it’s easier to express them.
Jennifer Wiles ’86, Director, Children’s Services at CareGroup Parmenter Home Care & Hospice/Mount Auburn Hospital

“Every day I meet families who are challenged by this — either in hospice or in our communities — and impacted by a sudden, unexpected death from overdose, suicide, homicide or an accident. These families have kids who are not able to participate in the traditional grief support that is out there,” explains Wiles, who is also an adjunct professor at Lesley. “I felt I needed to develop intentional programming and curriculum and training for people to do this work.”

Through the National Alliance for Grieving Children, Wiles holds monthly support calls to help other professionals, who report seeing more kids on the autism spectrum in their practices. With the New York Life Foundation grant, she will increase her mentorship by identifying a grief center in the US and providing onsite training to help them develop programming for people with disabilities.

“When a child with a disability experiences a death, it is important to provide responsive, informed and compassionate programming for them,” Wiles says.

The grant also allows her to increase services locally. Wiles, who regularly employs Lesley dance/movement therapy students as interns and staff, has added Audrey LaVallee ’08 and Katie McGrail ’17 as full-time staff.

With her expanded staff and resources, Wiles will establish three new support groups that focus on youth with disabilities, including one at our Threshold Program.

“It was a natural progression that we would serve all people,” she says of her work with HEARTplay.

The grant will allow Wiles and her team to move toward that goal and put into practice the principals she gleaned at Lesley.

“It really gives me an opportunity to use everything I’ve learned to effect real change in this underserved population,” she says.